Much ink has been spilled over reasons for the waning political clout of labor unions. The war on labor unions by corporate interests, now decades old, has been effective in reducing labor’s ranks. Private-sector unions have been decimated as jobs have been shipped overseas, the workforce down-sized, wages cut and pensions destroyed. Public-sector unions are now under severe attack.
Because of the corporate dominance of the political process during an international crisis of capitalism, austerity policies are presented as the “normal” response to economic collapse. Hence, cuts in the social safety net, public workers’ wages and pensions, and union rights are the currency of political discourse today.
Industrial actions, such as strikes, have become extremely difficult to organize, especially in the public sector. A strike can be a very effective political tool, as we recently saw in the Chicago teachers’ strike, but overall the number of strikes has fallen precipitously in recent decades.
Confronting this stark reality, union leaders often try to position their union tactically through transactional politics to get the “best deal possible.” Sometimes this works, and with a mobilized membership advances have been made by our union and others. But it is difficult for an individual union to make major advances on its own, or maintain a highly mobilized membership by itself. Without broader union unity, the “best” deals made are often bad ones, whose terms give members good reason for discontent. To say “it could have been worse,” even if true, does not make a bad deal fair or satisfying.
Facing this very difficult political reality, what is the political action strategy of the PSC? How do we achieve greater power and voice to help us better serve our students and the working people of New York?
THE INSIDE STRATEGY
It is the PSC’s responsibility to represent our membership in the halls of political power. The PSC engages with elected officials, whether Democrats or Republicans, lobbying and arguing for better CUNY budgets, for workers’ rights and benefits, and for support for better contracts. In electoral politics, we have worked with our union affiliates to build support for progressive candidates who will be more sympathetic to our issues and the interests of working people. Mobilizing member support for these candidates is central to success: going door-to-door, making phone calls, donating to PSC-COPE (the union’s Committee on Political Action), and voting.
THE OUTSIDE STRATEGY
Working this “inside” game, however, has not been enough to achieve the working conditions we need or the learning conditions our students deserve. More broadly, the labor movement’s growing reliance on inside influence, electoral strategies and deal-making has proved insufficient to turn back the rising tide of inequality, insecurity and injustice for working people.
Therefore, the PSC is also working “outside” the halls of power to help build independent political forces and social movements. Working with other unions, community groups and grassroots organizations, the PSC’s goal is to shift the public agenda away from austerity and towards greater social and economic justice. For example, the PSC was an early and strong supporter of Occupy Wall Street, which blew open a national political discussion on the growing inequalities of wealth and power in the US today. We are part of Strong Economy for All, a union-community coalition that worked with the Occupy movement last year to challenge Governor Andrew Cuomo’s austerity agenda through protest and direct action, pushing Albany to extend part of the “millionaires’ tax” on the highest incomes in New York – a proposal that had been declared “off the table” just six months earlier.
THE INSIDE-OUTSIDE STRATEGY
A sophisticated “inside-outside” strategy recognizes both the importance of maximizing tactical leverage through a mobilized membership within the confines of the existing relations of power, while also working to change those power relations to expand the boundaries of what is politically possible.
The PSC’s political action strategy is rooted in our interests and the interests of working people. It is because these interests are often not recognized by elected officials that the PSC works hard to build coalitions and movements that will set and pursue a progressive agenda for higher education and for working people at the city, state and national levels. While we are campaigning for President Barack Obama’s reelection and the election of many progressive state legislators on November 6, we are working equally hard at building independent political structures that will hold elected officials accountable, whoever they are.
THE CASE FOR ELECTING OBAMA AND THE STATE SENATE DEMOCRATS
The choice in the presidential election is very clear. For example, President Obama strongly supported and enhanced Pell grants for our students while lowering their interest rates on loans. He provided needed funding for community colleges through the stimulus act. He passed “Obamacare” and signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which advanced working women’s rights to equal pay. Obama’s recent executive order on immigration allows young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US by their parents to attend college and work without fear of deportation.
Sharp contrasts and concrete differences like these exist on dozens of issues: Mitt Romney has pledged to eviscerate collective bargaining (especially in the public sector); increase borrowing costs for students; cut back student aid and federal funding for colleges; reduce taxes on the wealthy; cut social safety net programs and voucherize Medicare; scale back environmental regulation; and repeal Obamacare and increased banking regulation. Among Romney’s big financial contributors is the for-profit higher education sector, which is looking for government deregulation so they can more easily prey upon our students.
A Romney victory would bring into government a corporate and political class that adheres to an extreme right-wing ideology that can do untold harm to women, working people, people of color and the poor.
Many of us have real political differences with President Obama on education policy, the war in Afghanistan, health-care policy, and his own version of austerity. But with an Obama administration, we will have far more political space to advance our agenda than we would with a Romney administration. With Romney in office, unions would be defending our right to exist, as in Wisconsin, and working people would be fighting to maintain our most basic rights.
The PSC is also advocating electing Democrats to the New York State Senate this year, so that Democrats will win a majority and hold Senate leadership positions. In particular, we are strongly supporting the reelection of Senator Joseph Addabbo in Queens (Senate District 15), the campaign of Andrew Gounardes in Brooklyn (SD 22) to oust Republican State Senator Marty Golden, and the candidacy of George Latimer in Westchester (SD 37) for an open State Senate seat. All three candidates are running on both the Working Families Party (WFP)and Democratic Party lines.
Democrats are currently in the minority in the Senate. They tried to derail a vote on the Tier VI pension cutbacks by walking out, but they did not have enough strength to stop it. Governor Cuomo won the support of the Republican State Senate leadership for his Tier VI proposal by supporting a redistricting proposal that gives the Republicans a better chance to remain in control of the Senate.
Why would Cuomo want to maintain a Republican-led Senate? Because it allows him to play the Republican Senate against the Democrat-led Assembly, which has a Democratic Caucus that is far more progressive and labor-friendly than is Cuomo. Electing a Democratic-led State Senate will provide more political space for PSC and other labor unions to pursue our agenda.
THE NYC 2013 STRATEGY
The Democratic Party is a big tent with many different political tendencies. For example, Governor Cuomo has behind him real estate and corporate interests who support his austerity policies and attacks on public-sector pensions. But in New York City, we elected a Comptroller and Public Advocate and many City Councilmembers who advocate a grassroots democratic politics (with a small “d”) and support higher taxes for the wealthy and limits on corporate power. A number of Democrats on the City Council, such as Jumaane Williams, Ydanis Rodriguez and several others, have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Occupy Wall Street in the face of police attacks on the right to dissent.
With other unions and organizations, the PSC is currently engaged in recruiting and supporting candidates for public office in the 2013 New York City elections. The goal is to elect Democratic candidates who are labor-friendly, understand the importance of CUNY to New York City, and will represent the 99% in office. We hope to win a significant progressive bloc – perhaps a majority – on the New York City Council and in City-wide offices.
THE PSC AND THE WORKING FAMILIES PARTY
This year the PSC affiliated with the Working Families Party because the WFP sits at a crossroads of grassroots organizations, unions and Democratic Party politics. As such, the WFP is an important force for progressive politics in New York State, especially at the local level where WFP support has meant the difference between victory and defeat for progressive candidates in both Democratic primary and general election contests.
The WFP is one place where inside and outside political forces meet: sometimes they easily coexist and sometimes they don’t. For example, the WFP was an early supporter of Occupy Wall Street and is a major proponent of the NYC 2013 strategy. At the same time, Cuomo ran for Governor on the WFP line – a pragmatic move aimed at maintaining their ballot status, but a decision with which many – including many members of both the PSC and the WFP – strongly disagreed.
For the PSC, the WFP presents many opportunities to reach a diverse network of community, union and social movement activists with our particular concerns, and to make common cause with them in a broad-based coalition. Our goal in affiliating with the WFP is to build unity behind a progressive agenda – including supporting CUNY and our students – and to elect candidates who will give that agenda consistent support.
The elements of the PSC’s political action strategy have been approved by the PSC Delegate Assembly or the Executive Council. For this strategy to work, however, we need the participation of members at all levels. Knocking on doors in labor walks for candidates, making calls in our election phone-banks, interviewing candidates, helping PSC members connect their community and social justice organizing to the PSC’s political work, face-to-face meetings with legislators, donating money to PSC-COPE to finance these activities, and voting for pro-union candidates – we need your participation in whatever way you can provide it.