Union Action: PEOPLE Power

DC 37 members and retirees protest against the Constitutional Convention ballot question at the 2017 Labor Day Parade in midtown Manhattan. Photo: Mike Lee

By GREGORY N. HEIRES
Our political system is dominated by corporations, lobbyists and wealthy individuals.

As the 2016 election cycle wound down, five individual donors had spent more than $210 million on political contributions while labor, which represent nearly 15 million members, donated $132 million to super PACs and another $35 million on federal elections. Republican casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife alone contributed $52.9 million.

The political strength of the labor movement depends a great deal on our “people power. Volunteers take part in the union’s get-out-to vote work, such as phone banking, attending rallies and going door-to-door to encourage members to vote. Across the country members help fortify our political strength by supporting the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ own political action fund — known as PEOPLE.

John Hyslop, president of Queens Library Guild Local 1321, is one of the top donors to PEOPLE in the country.

“We need to be involved in the political process,” Hyslop said. “Unfortunately, until there is electoral reform, the current political system requires a lot of money if you want to be a player.”

Judith Arroyo, the president of United Nurses and Epidemiologists Local 436, echoed Hyslop’s sentiments.

“Our political action committee helps us elect worker-friendly politicians and support legislation to protect public services and the workers who provide those services,” said Local 436 President and top PEOPLE contributor Judith Arroyo. Photo: Clarence Elie-Rivera

“In the 21st century, politics is all about money,” said Arroyo, who also is a top PEOPLE donor.

“If we didn’t have PEOPLE, DC 37 wouldn’t have the power we do in New York and the same goes for AFSCME in Washington,” Arroyo said. “Our political action committee helps us elect worker-friendly politicians and support legislation to protect public services and the workers who provide those services”

Countering the power elite

PEOPLE is an important counterweight to powerful interests that have eaten up an expanding portion of the nation’s economic growth over the past four decades.

A right-wing scheme to wipe out unions has been accompanied by wage stagnation, soaring inequality and a tightening of the financial elite’s grip on the country’s economy — and politics.

PEOPLE enables us to be staunch advocates on behalf of all workers:

● PEOPLE funds helped win the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which gave millions of people access to health care.

● In 2005, AFSCME led a diverse coalition to kill off a plan to privatize Social Security. This was President George W. Bush’s top domestic policy priority after his re-election.

Had Bush been successful, the country’s decades-long commitment to retirement security for millions of Americans, would have been put in jeopardy. People would no longer have been able to count on a guaranteed and steady of income in their retirement because their Social Security funds would have been put in individual personal retirement accounts similar to 401(k)s, subjecting their savings to the uncertainty of the stock market.

In recent years, PEOPLE dollars have provided crucial support for important issues affecting DC 37 members.

Shortly after Andrew Cuomo became governor in 2011, there was loud talk in Albany of public pensions cuts. On the heels of the Great Recession after the 2008 economic crisis, Wall Street saw an opportunity to replace the traditional pensions of public employee with private savings accounts throughout the country.

Initially, Cuomo seemed open to the change. But he backed down after an uproar from working families and community groups.
“Our support of PEOPLE is very, very important,” said Michelle Akyempong, who chairs the DC 37 PEOPLE Committee. “I like to call PEOPLE the political arm of the labor movement.”

“By supporting labor-friendly candidates, PEOPLE protects our quality of life and livelihood, as well as our wages, benefits and working conditions,” she said.

Akyempong said that union-backed members of Congress from New York City such as Nydia Velazquez, Hakeem Jeffries and Yvette Clarke consistently support unions.

Velazquez is one of the most outspoken members of the U.S. House of Representatives fighting to create a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, young people who were brought to the United States as children without documentation.

“We need to be involved in the political process. Unfortunately, until there is electoral reform, the current political system requires a lot of money if you want to be a player,” said John Hyslop, president of Local 1321, and also a top PEOPLE contributor. Photo: Clarence Elie-Rivera

If Democrats take back the U.S. Senate, union-backed Sen. Charles Schumer will become that chamber’s majority leader, Akyempong said.

President Donald J. Trump is allowing a federal law protecting Dreamers from deportation to expire and leaving it up the  Republican-controlled Congress to extend it — something very much in doubt.

PEOPLE is particularly important as the Trump administration continues to implement its anti-labor policies, including the rolling back of labor protections implemented by former President Barack Obama and the slashing of federal dollars for public schools and public hospitals, places where tens of thousands of DC 37 members work.

Across the country, Republican-controlled state governments have smashed unions and cut public services. So, in the 2018 mid-term elections, AFSCME wants to flip control of statehouses.

Brian McDonnell, AFSCME’s political and legislative director in New York, highlighted significant local political battles in which PEOPLE support was vital.

Constitutional convention victory

Last year, AFSCME worked with a coalition of community organizations to defeat a ballot question on whether New York should hold a constitutional convention. DC 37 and other public employee unions opposed the convention because it would have provided the opportunity for extreme right-wing interests to slash public employee pensions and pare down the state’s obligation to support government services.

When the campaign began, a majority of New Yorkers supported the convention. But the proposal was defeated by a landslide — 83 to 17 percent — as the campaign shifted public opinion and mobilized union members and retirees, McDonnell noted.

In 2016, PEOPLE funds helped DC 37 carry out a major campaign to secure $800 million from the state for the City University of New York and public hospitals in New York City.

The funding for education allowed the union and CUNY to settle prolonged and bitter contract negotiations. CUNY workers hadn’t received a wage increase for seven years.

Today, AFSCME is playing an important part in the effort to tap into the country’s anti-Trump sentiment to try to break the Republican control of the U.S. Congress, McDonnell said.

Last month, PEOPLE dollars and union field volunteers helped Democrat Conor Lamb defeat Republican Rick Saccone in a special election in 18th Congressional district of Pennsylvania.

“If we end House Speaker Paul Ryan’s era in the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., this November, it will be PEOPLE dollars that did it,” McDonnell said.

This story appeared in the April 2018 issue of Public Employee Press, the official publication of District Council 37, AFSCME, which represents 125,000 municipal workers in New York City.

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