comments Why I’m in favor of a NY Constitutional Convention
This week I saw colleagues in the media who organized and joined a union, under threat that the business would close if they did, threats that were made true a week later. And in the background of this, are the unions of the state of NY unanimously fighting to defeat the mandatory constitutional convention referendum, or proposition 1 on the ballot this November 7. Our constitution which expressly gives the right to collective bargaining, but does not mandate employers negotiate with our unions, it gives public employees the right to a prevailing wage but is mute on prevailing wages for other employees. It gives the public pension system the weight of an inviolable contract, but gives far less protection to the other workers of our state. And to my distress, unions, including my own, have looked at a convention, as only something that should not happen. They have decided that our only hope is to cling to what was gained in the 1937 convention in the new deal era, and have not been ambitious for the social justice goals of a new generation. Meanwhile there’s nothing in our NY constitution that requires a private employer to recognize a union, penalizes them for closing rather than deal with one, and only the Taylor law compels NY state to negotiate with public employee unions.
I have two grandfathers who were prominent labor organizers and academics. (they were both married to my grandmother at different times, she was also involved in the labor movement, as was my grandfather’s second wife Pat.) They became labor organizers in furtherance of social justice, because they were socialists as well. They did not know for sure what the end result of this work would be, in some cases they failed. But they and the labor movement in it’s infancy, saw working people in their numbers, and tried to unite them as a weapon aimed at massive corporate power. They did not know it would work, but they saw the huge unmet need, they saw poverty, they saw exploitation, they were thinking of humanity as a whole and trade unionism as a means to an end.
I cannot claim any of that work as my own, I have only in recent years worked at a job which was union eligible and part of my excitement on taking the job is I would finally have job protections not afforded to most people in my industry. Protections which I had lived without for so long and also could become a helper in the union so we could keep those and make our workplace better. I immediately went to meetings and became a steward and eventually supported a candidate running against the incumbent president. Our union has discovered gender and racial pay inequity, made our findings public and I saw a new ambition to fix this in a candidate who was a woman of color.
I grew up in activism in an era of identity politics, and I participated from a young age in work to safeguard reproductive rights against constant assault. We are in an era where these issues are in a new crisis. The movement for black lives, queer equality, trans equality, the rights of the undocumented, women’s equality and reproductive rights could see gains in NY if we held a convention. Our legislature and governor have not kept pace with what is needed, and have not done anything in the year since Trump was elected to shore up the protections in abortion rights, trans rights, voting rights, immigrant rights, that are being assaulted by our federal government right now. We’ve made no changes to address the deaths of Eric Garner and Akai Gurley.
The center left and progressives have a huge registration advantage in NY state, membership in labor unions is higher here than anywhere else in the country. We voted for Clinton by 60%. Those advocating a no vote on this convention, are looking at that strength, our support for labor and progressive values, and calling it weakness. They are looking at a process that is more populist than our status quo state political environment and they are calling it undemocratic. They call out the fact that our state senate districts are gerrymandered and choose to continue to return to power those who would perpetuate it, and block the only process with a chance of ending it. By rejecting a convention they are choosing to live by the political process most affected by gerrymandering, the normal legislative process, one which will not lead to a less gerrymandered future.
A convention is less sensitive to gerrymandering, it dilutes the effect of it in three ways. The first way is that there are 15 at large delegates, which are elected by a statewide popular vote, these are not subject to districting at all. The second is that there are three delegates per state senate district. Even with these districts engineered as they are have produced 32 to 31 democratic majority to the Senate, it is not a ruling majority because 8 Democrats have accepted lulus and special favors for their districts in exchange for not supporting the Democratic leader. A few of these districts drawn for the relection of GOP incumbents have also voted for Clinton in the presidential election, some of them have democratic assembly members. Eight total voted to return their republican senator and also Hillary Clinton for president. Once three non-incumbents are running for delegate in these purple districts, they are going to shake out a few extra dems. The last way that populism rules the results of a convention is that all the amendments are presented to voters for an up or down vote. The popular will, a direct democratic process is what determines the final outcome of a convention.
It’s deeply sad to me that my own top level union, and organized labor in general are taking the view that protections we passed in historical conventions are enough. That we have no responsibility to the New Yorkers not enfranchised in this document, especially workers outside unions who have no right to healthcare or paid sick time. They have looked at the state with the highest concentration of union members in the nation, which is in no danger of a right wing takeover, and raised the spectre of one on a flimsy premise. They have looked at one of the best moments to seize the both the resistance zeitgeist and a natural demographic advantage to make progressive change NY and called it dangerous. My friend Tony and I wrote an editorial on just how strong we will be in a convention.
And more problematic to me, is telling a us we need and have a majority of voters to vote no, to protect pensions that cannot be lost in this process. And deluding that very majority that it is powerful enough to reject a convention, but that this same majority would somehow not exist if proposals weakening future pension protections came back to them on the ballot. We’re a strong enough wave to stop a convention, but somehow this same group would be too weak and drain away if they needed to vote no on specific amendments that weakened labor protections put in front of them after a convention. This is incredibly cynical.
I’m am fighting for passage of this referendum because I am not satisfied with the way NY state politics play out. The corruption, the 98% incumbency re-election rate, has all gotten worse in the 20 years since New Yorkers last rejected this vote. I’ve come to embrace term limits as the chemotherapy needed for a cancerous system. Today’s progressives can use this tool to bring our constitution and NY into the 21st century by voting yes on the referendum on Nov 7th. We can insure equality for women and trans people, we can allow early voting and same day registration, which our constitution currently prohibits. We can improve labor standards by including a right to paid sick leave for all full time workers, and cost of living increases to our state minimum wage. We can update and codify reproductive rights, we can mandate ethics reform, fully non partisan redistricting, we can create a full time legislature with no outside income. We can insure cases where people are killed in police custody are given state jurisdiction, we can reform cash bail and streamline our courts, we can legalize recreational marijuana. We can even, like bold progressives of the past, create an even greater safety net in our state by including a right to healthcare. We can make our state a place where many of Trumps harmful policies stop at our borders. Our state can be a progressive sanctuary if we remake the constitution to reflect who we are.