Between 2011 and 2012, New York teachers (NYSUT) spent $5.9 million to influence the political process. Opponents of unions will point to this as business as usual, just another example of Big Labor’s dominance of the system. Campaign donations in hand, politicians pull strings to protect and promote lazy public school teachers. However, business has been everything but usual in public education of late. As teachers around the country grapple with budget cuts and Common Core, 300,000 of their colleagues have lost their job since 2009, and morale is at a twenty-year low. With public education under assault from all angles, just how much did NYSUT’s millions buy for its members?
it turns out, not much. During that same two-year period, the Committee to Save
New York (CSNY), a pro-corporation, anti-union PAC formed with Governor Cuomo’s
blessing, spent $17 million on lobbying—about $11 million more than teachers. Fueled by large contributions
from a few anonymous billionaires, CSNY and Cuomo successfully advanced their agenda
in New York by slashing worker pensions and corporate taxes, topped with a pernicious property tax cap on school districts. Though CSNY recently filed
papers to dissolve itself, saying that its “mission was largely successful”, (coincidentally coinciding with new requirements to reveal its donors) more
groups like CSNY are bound to metastasize, touting the same desire to “neutralize
the impact of special interest money.” However, when a small group of wealthy
people can quickly coalesce and spend three times as much money on
lobbying as 600,000 union members, does this level the scale, or knock it over?
Since the Citizens United ruling in 2010, what's happening in New York is
happening all around the country, as a minority of wealthy individuals and the
PACs they fund muffles the masses, and public financing initiatives have stalled with plutocrats’
billions subsuming the system. Though Cuomo himself is pushing his own version of campaign finance reform in his current budget, how sincere is he, given
that he’s only aided and abetted the current system as governor? Will Cuomo refund
the $33 million currently in his re-election war chest? Doubtful.
With rank and file teachers’ anger toward their governor’s policies spilling
out at forums and rallies across the state, NYSUT’s officers recently dropped
$10,000 of union money at Cuomo’s birthday party, dancing the night away to Billy
Joel amid the embers of members’ money.
VOTE-COPE, the union’s voluntary political action fund, is supposed to
be put to prudent use, supporting politicians who “understand the importance of
education.” The fund raises the volume
of NYSUT’s voice and helps engender favorable conditions for organized labor. Cuomo,
however, has been anything but favorable to New York’s parents and teachers,
slashing school aid while stubbornly moving forward with moronic standardized tests. Andy Pallotta, NYSUT’s executive vice president who authorized the donation
to Cuomo, would like his members to believe that $10,000 was the price for a
seat at Cuomo's table—albeit an expensive one. Pallotta and Revive NYSUT (the slate
of candidates he’s running with to unseat NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi and his
officers) liken Cuomo to a bossy principal or superintendent who they want to “win over.” However, is $10,000—or even $5.9 million—enough to win over Andrew Cuomo,
or any other politician whose pockets are already overflowing with corporate
Cuomo’s actions speak for themselves, and Pallotta and other union leaders' seats, while still in the same room, are now at the kiddie table. Workers have been shooed away from the grown-ups by plutocrats and
corporate interests. Unable to compete with corporate dollars, unions must
change course and admit that their members’ modest political donations are no
longer enough to win over politicians like Cuomo. If union dollars no longer
shout, what then must they say?
For one, it need not be the job of unions to win over politicians. Politicians
must win over all voters, including union members. As
echoed in VOTE-COPE’s mission statement, member donations must go toward
candidates who already understand the
importance of education and have proven this through their records. Union money
cannot be wasted trying to change the minds of leaders who’ve already had
their minds made up by the dollars of hedge fund managers, Michelle Rhee, and Bill
Gates. Member donations should be used to defeat—not convert—candidates like
Cuomo, and our present and future leaders
must pay a political price for siding with corporations over people.
As union membership shrinks to its lowest level in 98 years, it is in every
member's interest to help others form unions and launch campaigns to educate
the public on how unions benefit all working people. With America as unequal as ever, each union member lost to budget cuts tips the scale further in favor
of the one-percent. Teachers unions can be instrumental in helping parents better understand current
education reforms like the Common Core so that they’ll be best able to fight for
their kids at the local level. The more parents know, the more supportive
they’ll be of educators, ready to vote for leaders and laws that uphold the
social contract. As voting rights fall under conservative crosshairs around the
country, unions can also help get out the vote, engaging citizens in federal,
state, and school board elections.
year, NYSUT’s Committee of 100 travels to Albany to lobby for the organization's interests, just one way members can engage in the struggle to save public education. NYSUT needs a committee
of 600,000 fighting in every corner of the state, from legislators' offices to
doctors’ offices, town halls to shopping malls. With the clouds of Citizens
United and corporate money darkening the political landscape, unions must parlay
members’ financial support into grassroots activism, not futile efforts to persuade
an anti-union governor who shines his shoes with $10,000 bills. Though $5.9
million is a lot less than $17 million, it will be worth a lot more after educating and amplifying the voices of everyone who cares about public education.