Political action took center stage at the Retiree Contiguous Election District At-Large 51-53 meeting Tuesday, as speaker after speaker urged activists to keep doing what they do best: mobilizing their colleagues - in-service and retired - and helping to get out the vote. With attacks on tenure, collective bargaining and retirement security real threats, there is an urgent need for action.
"We helped build this union and we're going to be part of helping to shape it as we move forward," said Florence McCue, ED 51-53 at-large director, who led her inaugural at-large ED meeting. She saluted attendees for their leadership and pledged that retiree activists would become part of the "21st-century NYSUT." "We're going to be part of that voice that can't be ignored."
Paul Pecorale, whose office oversees retiree concerns, thanked them for their continued activism and encouraged them to stay involved. "The work and advocacy you've carried out in the past has not gone unnoticed," he said. "But what you've laid as a foundation for NYSUT must be preserved."
Tough battles ahead
In an address outlining several critically important and hotly contested Senate and congressional races, NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta detailed the path ahead of the Nov. 4 elections.
"There is not a single right we enjoy today that was not secured wholly or in part through political action," said Pallotta. "And there is not a single right that can't be eliminated or threatened entirely by the political process."
Pallotta, whose office directs political action for the statewide union, urged retirees to support NYSUT-endorsed candidates by staffing phone banks, distributing literature or participating in campaign walks.
Several NYSUT-endorsed candidates face tough election battles in hotly contested races. In the New York state Senate, these include Ted O'Brien, Senate District 55; Cecelia Tkaczyk, SD 46; and Terry Gipson, SD 41. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman faces a tough challenge from John Cahill, a former adviser to Gov. George Pataki, who is receiving millions in campaign contributions from deep-pocketed financiers and Wall Street interests.
NYSUT President Karen E. Magee, Vice President Catalina Fortino and Secretary Treasurer Martin Messner echoed Pallotta's sentiments and thanked retirees for their ongoing efforts to support their union.
"You are our feet on the ground everyday, and I thank you for your advocacy," said Magee in welcoming the activists. "In the next 20-plus days, we'll need your help to elect pro-education representatives who will vote to protect tenure, retirement security and the right to collectively bargain."
"I'm honored to be in this room with men and women who have so many years of wisdom, knowledge and experience," said Fortino. "Thanks so much for all you do."
"Many of you have guided me, and you are an integral of this union," added Messner. "We've got quite the political fight on our hands - thanks for being here today."
Answering the call
Retiree activists from ED 53 took the call to action to heart, using pay-as-you-go flip phones supplied by NYSUT's legislative department to phone bank for incumbent AFT-endorsed incumbent New Hampshire Senate candidate Jeanne Shaheen during their ED break-out meeting.
With the U.S. Senate majority hanging in the balance, Shaheen's is one of several vitally important federal races; if the Republican party gains control of both houses of Congress, it could mean the end of collective bargaining rights, Social Security and Medicare as we know it, as well as public pensions, explained Pallotta. NYSUT is working with the AFL-CIO to campaign at the federal level.
Since the competition is funded by deep-pocketed, anti-union groups such as Campbell Brown's Partnership for Educational Justice and the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity - which seek to privatize public education and weaken the tenure and due process system for public educators - having all hands on deck is crucial. Unions can't match the multi-million dollar power of these groups; but they can offer feet on the ground.
"We are in the fight of our lives," and not living in a hotly contested election district is no excuse for sitting back, said Pallotta. NYSUT and the AFL-CIO have hundreds of pay-as-you-go flip phones volunteers can borrow to contact voters in contested districts. "You can make calls from your own homes on these phones and still help out," he said, explaining that legislative staff are breaking down membership lists by retiree councils to identify where help is needed most.
Citing the loss of collective bargaining rights in formerly powerhouse-union states like Wisconsin and Michigan, Alan Lubin, retired NYSUT executive vice president, disputed the notion "that it can't happen here" and urged attendees to take action. "We built this union and we've got to help protect what we've made," he said. "Let's get to work."
Also on hand for the event was New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and state Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who thanked retirees for their tireless efforts on their behalf, and asked for their continued support.