Unions and the NYS Constitutional Convention question
“Everything is at stake,” read the Civil Service Employees Association newsletter. The IBEW warned that it would put “guaranteed rights in jeopardy.” The New York State United Teachers called it a “potential disaster” that could “blow up the way of life New Yorkers enjoy.”
The danger that has these, and so many other unions, sounding the alarm is a provision articulated in Article XIX of the New York state Constitution. The state’s fundamental law mandates a straightforward question be printed on the ballot every 20 years for consideration by our state’s voters: “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?”
This once-in-a-generation, little-known referendum was first included in NY’s 1846 Constitution as a way for the people to circumvent the Legislature when these public servants refuse to actually serve the interests of the public.
The New York Constitutional Convention question is on the horizon once again in 2017 and the parade of evils have organized labor understandably fearful. Union leaders reason the convention, if affirmed, would be too expensive. More importantly, it would also be too broad in the way it could transform our state government by threatening hard-won clauses – like the one in Article V that protects public pensions.
Full disclosure: As a union member paying into a state retirement system for nearly my entire adult life – my own union, the NYPD Detectives’ Endowment Association, called a convention “harmful” and has been speaking about it in meetings since 2014 – I don't want a convention in this state that could contemplate seismic changes to our constitution.
As a New Yorker, however, I believe we are in desperate need of reform.
I am not alone in my outrage at our state’s rudderless leaders. A recent Siena College poll revealed the unsurprising fact that 89 percent of New Yorkers agree that corruption is a serious problem in Albany as we witness the recent scandal parade. The ethical challenges of our lawmakers are just a part of the problem. Tax-and-spend policies that make us dead last for growth of the 50 states, secretive deal-making that benefits only the connected, no agenda on the horizon to stop the exodus of our young and innumerable other reasons have fostered a contempt for state government and the outcry for reform. Our fellow Empire Staters, in spite of union reservations, may consider Article XIX’s constitutional convention as the only legitimate way to obtain the reforms so desperately needed at the state level.
But if the unions are serious about avoiding an all-encompassing convention, they should become more serious about the ways to negate the real possibility of voters approving the forum than simply asking their own members to vote “no.” To avoid appearing like obstructionists standing in the way of the changes so many New Yorkers are calling for now and will still be calling for by next November, unions should abandon their “Convention: No” stance and adopt “Convention: No. Reform: Yes” as their mantra.
But they must do it sooner rather than later. If popular and productive reforms are not passed into law, the lack of institutional improvement will no doubt be a deafening and sustained rallying cry encouraging New Yorkers to affirmatively support the convention question next year. The palpable anti-Albany atmosphere presents a risk that unions statewide shouldn't be willing to take.
The 2016 state elections – with every member of the state Senate and Assembly up for reelection – could and should be a referendum on reform and, in turn, a device to avoid a convention. Albany politicians desperate for union support going into the elections this November could be conditioned with self-serving motivation.
In this regard, union leaders should be viewing the 2016 elections – and the endorsements they could provide or withhold – with as much significance as they view the 2017 constitutional convention question. The clock is ticking as the election draws near. Let’s not allow the politicians in Albany the opportunity to run it out.
James Coll is an adjunct professor of American and Constitutional History at Hofstra University and the founder of ChangeNYS.org, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting civic education and political reform in our state.