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The PSC and New York City’s 2013 Elections: Shifting NYC’s Politics Away from Austerity

This year’s New York City elections could mark a turning point in city politics.Clarion spoke with several members of the PSC’s Legislative Committee about what’s at stake in 2013, the PSC’s plans, and how members can get involved. Discussion participants included committee members Iris DeLutro, Ron Hayduk, Geoff Kurtz, Eileen Moran and Cecelia McCall.
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CLARION: On January 26,2013, the union held this year’s “PSC-CUNY 101.”Thirty-three candidates for City Council attended. Tell us, what is PSC-CUNY 101?

CECELIA McCALL: It’s basically a seminar for City Council candidates – a two-hour crash course about CUNY and its issues. We have different presentations and we run down key facts and statistics about the University: who goes there, how it began, what’s CUNY’s role in the city today. And we have a serious discussion with the candidates about their importance to CUNY and why we need them to be advocates for the University.

EILEEN MORAN: We aim to present CUNY’s budget issues in a very clear way, one that will stick with the candidates when they become legislators. For instance, there’s a pie chart that shows what share of CUNY’s budget was paid for by student tuition 20 years ago, and how big a share they’re paying now. It goes from 12% to around 40%, then we connect that with the fact that so many of our students are poor – and yet they’re being asked to shoulder this burden. We show candidates the facts in a way that they’ll remember.

IRIS DeLUTRO: When new councilmembers take office, we want them to really be well-versed in CUNY’s issues; we want them committed to protect City University and its funding.

MORAN: PSC-CUNY 101 has also had a ripple effect. A lot of the candidates who attended when we’ve done this in the past did not win their race for Council – but later they were elected to the State Legislature. Very often there might be two people or three people we like, all running for the same seat, and this process means that all of them get this exposure, both to the PSC and to CUNY.

McCALL: In 2001, the first year we did PSC-CUNY 101, there were a lot of open Council seats. The fact that there was such a big turnover was a source of strength for us, because all of these newly elected people got to know us from the start. Most of them tended to have a grassroots background, they were rooted in their communities. The PSC was on the ground, we were in touch with them during the campaign and they got to know us fairly closely.

A good example is Ydanis Rodriguez. He had been a student activist at CUNY, and then a public-school teacher. When we first supported him back in 2001, he didn’t win. But he got elected a few years later, and then became chair of the Council’s Higher Education Committee.

That’s the kind of result we’ll be looking for again this year as we interview candidates. We want to keep building those kinds of relationships.

Members of the PSC Legislative Committee meet in January to make plans for the coming year.
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CLARION: What stands out about the NYC elections in 2013?

MORAN: First, the fact that there will be so many open seats. No one in citywide office is running for re-election, and probably more than a third of the City Council seats are up for grabs.

DeLUTRO: A big reason for so much turnover this year is the impact of term limits. Whatever you think of term limits, the fact that so many new Council members are coming in is a good opportunity for us in the PSC. It’s an opportunity to affect the direction of city politics.

GEOFF KURTZ: That gets at the second thing about this year, which is that some good things have been happening in New York City politics, and that’s creating some new possibilities. This year we’ve got a chance to start moving the city away from the austerity agenda that’s been so dominant.

After the 2009 election there was a cohort of City Council members who formed a Progressive Caucus, as an attempt to have an organized counterweight to the mayor and to corporate interests. One of the founders, by the way, was Ydanis Rodriguez. The group included a number of other people the PSC had endorsed, and a lot of them were close to the Working Families Party (WFP). They’ve pushed for measures like legislation for paid sick days, and they’ve been speaking out on issues like stop-and-frisk.

Now in this election, this Progressive Caucus is actually campaigning to increase its membership – recruiting candidates, starting to actively support candidates. That’s really exciting. It’s a big deal.

MORAN: What’s important is that those endorsements will be based on a set of common principles. The Caucus is going to release a common platform soon, which it’s been developing with labor and community groups from all over the city. The PSC has been part of those discussions. It’s an agenda that expresses some shared commitments – it says that we don’t have to accept an austerity agenda, that we have a choice.

KURTZ: Absolutely.

MORAN: Because New York City is not broke. This is one of the richest cities in the world. We have the money to pay for the services we need, and it’s not hard to figure out where the money is. But the people who have the most money are not paying their share in taxes – and that’s a problem. This is a big point of agreement between the Progressive Caucus and the PSC.

KURTZ: This whole question of austerity and fair taxation is a place where politics hits you in the pocketbook. These elections will affect the state of municipal labor relations, and that affects us in the PSC. We have a chance this year to elect a new generation of labor-friendly councilmembers. That’s pretty exciting. And the mayoral election is also important for us, because it’s going to set the climate for public-employee contract negotiations. Right now every municipal union is working under an expired contract.

RON HAYDUK: Like Eileen mentioned, the PSC has been part of the discussions on developing the Progressive Caucus platform. It’ll be something like “Thirteen big ideas for NYC in 2013,” and it’s a good list: our public schools and public higher education, transportation, affordable housing, how rebuilding is going to happen after Sandy. All things that affect our daily lives.

But what’s just as important as the specific issues is that it’s come out of a process with unions and grassroots community groups. In the same way that the Working Families Party is a coalition of labor and community-based organizations, the Progressive Caucus platform expresses an increasing desire of different groups to work together on a joint agenda. And that reflects some broader trends.

McCALL: On all these issues, Occupy Wall Street really changed the conversation. It made people focus on the fact that there’s a real class struggle going on, even if the media doesn’t like to talk about it. Suddenly people were talking about economic inequality and how it’s getting worse, how that’s bad for our society. “We are the 99%” – that really touched a chord, and I think it still resounds.

And Occupy isn’t dead. Occupy has been out in Red Hook and the Rockaways with Occupy Sandy. Occupy has been organizing for debt relief; they’re doing all kinds of things.

HAYDUK: The Occupy movement helped to open that space where labor and community groups have been coming together and starting to flex our muscles. The energy that created has led to some coalescing elsewhere. Look at last year’s May Day march for labor and immigrant rights – it was the largest in years, and groups that have not always worked well together worked together to organize that.

So, this kind of motion is also reflected in the Progressive Caucus agenda. And this kind of coalescing is a top priority of the PSC’s political strategy. Whether it’s with Occupy, or May Day, or taking part in the endorsement discussions of the WFP and the NYC Central Labor Council, we want to encourage unions, community groups and progressive activists to come together around a common agenda.

KURTZ: That’s a critical point. The PSC isn’t big enough to change New York City politics by ourselves alone. But with the active, engaged membership of the PSC in solidarity and coalition with other partners, with our labor friends and community-based organizations – that’s how we’ll have the greatest impact. That’s also how we can work to keep politicians accountable.

Whether someone positions themselves as a moderate, or a progressive, or a liberal, who’s to say what they will actually do when they get into office? They’ll be under tremendous pressure from Wall Street, from the real estate industry, from the tabloid editorials, from the right. Unless we apply pressure of our own, we can’t expect a good result.

So yes, we want to prevail, we want to get the best possible candidates elected. But we also want to make sure that we’ve got the capacity to work with our allies and hold them accountable.

MORAN: And that’s a real benefit of developing the Progressive Caucus platform. It’s says, “This is what our philosophy commits us to.” It’s taking a stand. So that’s something we can go back to after people are elected.

CLARION: So what is the PSC planning for the months ahead?

DeLUTRO: We’ll be hosting a mayoral candidates’ forum this spring, and every PSC member is strongly encouraged to attend! We want a good turnout, to show candidates that we are a significant organization – but also because this is part of the PSC’s endorsement process.

KURTZ: That’s right. We’ll be discussing the 2013 elections at chapter meetings this spring. So if we have a good number of members at the mayoral forum, they can come back to their chapters and make it part of a larger conversation about what our union should do in this election.

DeLUTRO: Later in the spring, the Delegate Assembly will vote on endorsements in citywide races and the Executive Council will make endorsements for City Council. The Legislative Committee makes recommendations for all these races, and we’re interviewing candidates now. Members who’d like to be part of the candidate interview process – and not just for one candidate, it has to be all of them – should contact the committee.

But our endorsements won’t mean anything if we can’t put people in the field to help those candidates win. We’ll need people to phone bank, to knock on doors, to stuff envelopes – if you want to help, there’s something you can do. And we will need your help.

To get involved, contact Amanda Magalhaes at the PSC office (amagalhaes@pscmail.org, or 212-354-1252).