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Being a PSC Political Activist: Union's Legislative Committee Makes a Difference

In the 2013 elections, the PSC mounted its most extensive electoral effort to date. The work paid off, with the election of PSC-backed candidates for all three citywide offices in New York City – mayor, public advocate and comptroller – and for 39 of 51 positions on the City Council. More than 40% of the council’s members are newly elected this year, with sharply increased support for a CUNY-friendly agenda.

The 20-plus members of the PSC Legislative Committee have been in the middle of the action. “It’s lovely to see how all this political organizing has paid off,” said Ron Hayduk a professor of political science at Queens College and a Legislative Committee activist. “In New York City today, it’s progressives who have the momentum.”

Commitment to CUNY

“It’s the first time in decades we’ve had a mayor come in who has made a major commitment to CUNY,” says Steve Levine, head of educational programs and the Wagner Archives at LaGuardia Community College. “That commitment was deepened in discussions with the PSC about the importance of CUNY to the future of New York,” said Levine, who began working with the Legislative Committee several years ago.

Incoming mayor Bill de Blasio made CUNY a major theme in his campaign, calling for an end to tax breaks for well-connected corporations like FreshDirect in order to increase City support for CUNY by nearly 60%.

In a busy campaign year, Anselma Rodriguez, coordinator of graduate studies at Brooklyn College, said she particularly liked interviewing candidates as part of the PSC’s endorsement process. “I got a big charge out of that,” she told Clarion. “Asking the candidates questions about their positions, talking with them about policy issues – I felt I was really getting an up-close view.”

City politics have such a big effect on CUNY, Rodriguez said, that deciding to join the Legislative Committee felt like a natural choice. “It’s a way to contribute to something tangible and real,” she explained. “I’ve enjoyed working with like-minded people and feeling like my contribution is respected. These people believe in the same things I believe in, and we’re all working together,”

The Legislative Committee began 2013 by organizing a seminar to tutor 36 City Council candidates on CUNY budget and policy issues. Dubbed “PSC-CUNY 101,” the three-hour workshop gave candidates key information on the role CUNY plays in NYC and what kinds of support it needs.

In the months that followed, committee members met with and interviewed dozens of candidates for a range of offices. “Everyone on the committee came informed and with open minds,” says George Sanchez, chair of the department of performing and creative arts at College of Staten Island.

“It was a really positive experience,” Levine said of the candidate interviews. “We listened to them and we educated them on the City University of New York and what’s needed to make it prosper.” After reviewing the candidates’ responses, Legislative Committee members submitted endorsement recommendations to the PSC’s Executive Council (EC). Decisions on City Council races were then determined by vote of the EC, while for citywide positions the EC makes a recommendation to the union’s Delegate Assembly, which has the final say.

The mayor’s race dominated the headlines for most of the election season. The Legislative Committee organized a PSC forum for mayoral candidates on April 23 at the Hunter School of Social Work in East Harlem, which was attended by an overflow crowd of more than 200 people. After carefully evaluating each candidate, the committee ultimately recommended that the union endorse de Blasio, and in June the PSC’s Executive Council and Delegate Assembly both came to the same conclusion. “CUNY Union Endorses De Blasio,” read the New York Times headline; the paper noted that the PSC’s “endorsement is...prized because the union’s members have a track record of actually voting on Election Day.”

On the Rise

At the time de Blasio was drawing 10% support in opinion polls, but Sanchez says he was certain they had the right candidate. “He was great as a council member,” said Sanchez, who chaired the Parent-Teacher Association at a Brooklyn elementary school in de Blasio’s district, when the future mayor served on the City Council from 2002-2010. “He really understood the issues around public education.”

De Blasio soon began his rise in the polls and Legislative Committee members threw their energy into making sure the PSC’s endorsements delivered results. Committee members played a key role in the union’s phone-banking effort, which contacted more than 6,000 PSC members registered to vote in the Democratic primary. Legislative Committee activists also leafleted on their campuses, talking with colleagues and also encouraging students to vote – in many cases for the first time.

History

“You get this feeling that history is in the making and that I’m in the thick of it,” Rodriguez recalled.

Paul Washington of Medgar Evers College and members of the PSC Legislative Committee, asked questions at the PSC’s mayoral candidates’ forum in April.
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“I especially enjoyed the person-to-person contact in handing out flyers,” said Paul Washington, Director of Outreach for the Male Development and Empowerment Center at Medgar Evers College. “Here at the college I got to catch up with my colleagues and meet some new people. I love the questions, the give-and-take,” says Washington, a veteran political activist. “You get to know what’s on people’s minds, engage with them about what they fundamentally believe. It’s interesting!”

Now that PSC-backed candidates have been swept into office, Legislative Committee members are looking to convert electoral success into the enactment of progressive policies. Lobbying days in Albany and at City Hall are being planned in which PSC members can meet with their elected representatives to urge them to enact the union’s agenda. This is a regular part of the Legislative Committee’s work, especially during “budget season” in the winter and spring.

Leslie deGiere of Bronx Community College and members of the PSC Legislative Committee, asked questions at the PSC’s mayoral candidates’ forum in April.
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One member of the committee who has recently seen the payoff of being politically engaged is Leslie deGiere, a CLIP instructor at Bronx Community College (BCC). DeGiere joined the Legislative Committee about a year ago and soon took the lead in organizing a health and safety campaign at BCC to win repairs for a number of century-old buildings on her campus. Many of those goals required that the college secure new resources.

DeGiere, whose father worked as a staff person in the California State Legislature, led an effort that generated more than 1,000 postcards and dozens of letters last spring from BCC students, faculty and staff to City Council members and the Bronx borough president, urging full funding for BCC’s capital needs. PSC members and student activists followed up with in-person visits to 10 council members. The campaign’s success means that BCC’s capital budget should receive a total of $30-34 million in City and State funds to be spent over the next few years.
“One of the things that I loved was visiting City Council members together with students,” deGiere told Clarion. “When we went to the office of Fernando Cabrera, who’s the City Council member for the area around BCC, we met with his chief of staff. But when he saw how many constituents were there, he called up Cabrera and said, ‘You’ve got to get over here,’” deGiere recalled. “It was very exciting for the students to see the effect that their presence had.”

Successful campaigns like the one at BCC depend in part on the union’s success in electing CUNY-friendly candidates to public office – and that requires financial resources. Ron Hayduk, coordinator of PSC-CUNY COPE, the union’s political action arm, is currently leading a campaign to boost PSC members’s voluntary donations to COPE, which can be done through payroll deductions or directly by check. “Whatever members can give will make a difference,” Hayduk told Clarion. “When we expand COPE, we expand our political capacity.” (For more information, see psc-cuny.org/cope.)

As much as they are involved in electoral campaigns and meeting with legislators, committee members agree that much of the union’s political muscle comes from outside those arenas. “We didn’t get to this juncture in history just through lobbying and legislating,” said Washington.

Hayduk, who participated in the 1991 student movement against tuition hikes at CUNY that occupied buildings on 11 campuses, says the ideal approach is one that combines pressure both inside and outside the corridors of power. “Without broader popular mobilization or pressure, they can ignore us,” Hayduk said. “Public protest provides the inside strategy with greater leverage.”

As an example, Hayduk cited the 2011 campaign to win approval in Albany for an extension of the State’s “millionaires tax.” Governor Andrew Cuomo took a hard line against any extension, and mobilized his business allies against the idea. As late as October, the governor insisted there would be no extension. But as Occupy Wall Street continued to grow that fall, Cuomo sensed a shift in the political winds and agreed to a partial extension. “He didn’t want to be known as ‘Governor One Percent.’” Hayduk recalled with a laugh.

Inside and Outside

The lesson, agrees Washington, is clear: “We can’t allow ourselves to be demobilized. That’s why we have to stay in the streets.” What helps make the PSC an effective political organization, he told Clarion, is in part that it can combine electoral campaigns, mass marches, legislative lobbying and direct action to achieve its goals as part of a broader movement.

“Activists on the outside raise the temperature around a particular issue,” says Washington. “Then when you are on the inside, you can create substantive solutions to problems” that activists have identified.

Inside or outside, the new political winds blowing in NYC make it look likely that 2014 will be another busy year. And the members of the Legislative Committee say they wouldn’t have it any other way.

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To join the PSC Legislative Committee or to find out more, call Amanda Magalhaes at (212) 354-1252, or email her at amagalhaes@pscmail.org.