Kristen Marturano has much in common with other teachers starting out in their careers. She loves teaching her first grade students at Rockville Centre schools on Long Island. She has student loans and challenges making ends meet.
Last year, after NYSUT announced a campaign to register voters, she found she had something in common with members across the state regardless of years in their careers — she was not registered to vote.
Marturano, a member of the Rockville Centre Teachers Association, found out because her local president, Viri Pettersen, made it an issue during a New Teacher Institute last August and at a faculty meeting at the start of school.
"All it can take is a recent move or a name change to remove your name" from the voting rolls, Marturano said. She simply filled out a postcard to correct it.
"I thought about it recently when I voted on my school budget, how very important it is because, so often, every vote counts."
NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi said voter mobilization efforts like the RVCTA's are more important than ever because of the unprecedented attacks on the right to vote nationwide.
"We must stay vigilant here in New York so we don't face the suppression efforts residents of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Nevada have gone through," Iannuzzi said. Legislators in those states passed what many thought were reasonable-sounding voter ID laws in the first few months of 2011. Unfortunately, those laws denied more than 21 million eligible voters access to the ballot box, the AFL-CIO estimated. Those most suppressed from voting have been African-Americans, the elderly, students, people with disabilities, veterans and military personnel.
NYSUT pledged last year to help the AFL-CIO as it seeks to raise the overall union registration rate. NYSUT started a campaign last August for locals and retiree councils to register the unregistered and to increase member engagement. So far, the union has registered 2,850 voters, which represents 29 percent of all new voter registrations in the state for an eight-month period.
"While the overall registration rate is quite high among union members, we want New York to lead the way, especially to help our sisters and brothers in states where they face a coordinated effort to block the vote," Iannuzzi said.
Pettersen took NYSUT's advice and made voter registration and participation a top concern all year long in her messages to members. "Voting is one way we can stand up for the rights of working people, public education, the social safety net, the environment. To me, the definition of community starts with voting," she said. Each spring the RVCTA, like many other NYSUT locals, works with the League of Women Voters to register high school seniors.
"It's timed to help give those high school seniors who are old enough the chance to vote on the school budget," Pettersen said.
Spending in elections is yet another way right wing interests undermine organized labor. Look to Wisconsin to see how outside special interest groups provided as much as $500,000 each, totaling $30.5 million, to keep Gov. Scott Walker's conservative agenda in play. Compare that to just $3.9 million by his Democratic challenger, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, according to data from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Working to change those odds are locals like the United Federation of Teachers, NYSUT's New York City affiliate, which works all year to register voters at events where they also distribute school supplies and provide information on Dial-A-Teacher and scholarship programs.
NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta gave a ringing endorsement to the UFT, the RVCTA and other locals across the state working to register voters. He noted NYSUT will register members at all of its summer conferences (See calendar on page 34) and will ramp up efforts to get members to the polls in November.
NYSUT local leaders will debate in mid-August which statewide candidates to endorse for this fall's elections. Once those decisions are made, NYSUT will provide information about the issues and candidates throughout the fall.
"It all leads up to Election Day," Pallotta said, noting working families must get themselves, their neighbors and their colleagues to the voting booth.