NEW YORK, N.Y.—In the end, it wasn’t even close. New York State voters on Nov. 7 rejected holding a convention to revise the state constitution by a margin of 5 to 1. The Proposal 1 ballot question did not carry a single one of the state’s 62 counties, from Chautauqua to Suffolk, and only got more than 25% yes votes in two, Manhattan and the Ithaca area.
“This is a tremendous victory for organized labor in New York and for all working people,” New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento said in a statement. “The result of the election is very clear: Working men and women understood what was at stake.”
State labor unions overwhelmingly opposed the proposal, fearing that a revised constitution could weaken or remove labor-rights provisions included in the state constitution since 1938, including protections for public employees’ pensions, workers’ compensation, civil-service protections, the right to collectively bargain, unemployment insurance, the eight-hour work day, and prevailing wage.Cilento called it “the priority issue” for the state AFL-CIO for the past two years.
Unions organized intensely among their own members, from the 2,500 in SEIU Local 246 to the more than 600,000 in the New York State United Teachers. NYSUT members working in phone banks made more than 500,000 calls urging people to vote no, while others knocked on tens of thousands of doors. Unions and labor-related groups made up most of the more than 100 members of New Yorkers Against Corruption, the umbrella coalition campaigning against the proposal with the general public. At rallies supporting the strikers at Spectrum and the fired-en-masse journalists of Gothamist and DNAinfo, union leaders called for a no vote.
“Our members and millions of other people throughout the state recognized the potential disaster, and turned out to make our voices heard,” Civil Service Employees Association President Danny Donohue said in a statement. “Without CSEA and our allies voting NO on the constitutional convention, there’s a good chance we’d all be on the hook for a very expensive and dangerous ride.”
The union mobilization paid off because public support for the convention was soft, and motivated voters make a bigger difference in a low-turnout election. Polls taken before the vote had showed New Yorkers favoring the convention by a narrow margin, but a substantial share of respondents knew very little about it. A Baruch College poll released Oct. 23 found 32% for and 27% against—while 56% hadn’t read or heard anything about it. The roughly 3,250,000 ballots cast Nov. 7 were less than half the state’s turnout in the 2016 presidential election.
Supporters of the convention promoted it as a way to get around the corruption and dysfunction of state government, as a way to enact measures such as campaign-finance reform or nonpartisan redistricting that now have a next-to-nil chance of passing the state legislature. But opponents worried that because more than 90% of the convention delegates would be elected from state Senate districts, which are heavily gerrymandered to favor Republicans and upstate areas over Democrats and New York City, the process would be similarly skewed. It appears that voters feared more that corruption and dysfunction would take over the process and be able to do a lot more mischief.
NYSUT spokesperson Carl Korn, speaking to LaborPress shortly before the election, noted that hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer had given $1 million to support Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino’s re-election campaign. That would work out to almost $5 for each vote cast in the election, in which Astorino was unseated by Democratic state Senator George Latimer. If Mercer, the financial patron of the Breitbart white-nationalist Web site and a key backer of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, was willing to put that much money into a local race, Korn wondered, how much would he invest in a chance to make major and permanent changes to state law?
“Tonight, New York saw what happens when labor organizes, mobilizes and acts as one to protect working people. NYSUT and other unions educated voters and turned them out in force to defeat what would have been a taxpayer-funded boondoggle that put the rights we all enjoy at risk,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said in a statement. He called the vote a sign that labor “remains a strong force in New York State fighting to protect workers from wealthy special interests.”