Anti-union forces will present challenges and obstacles to unions and educators in the years to come, but, “we’ll overcome it,” Mario Cilento, president of the state AFL-CIO, told delegates to the NYSUT Representative Assembly.
“We can’t outspend our opponents, but we can outwork them,” he said, as he enumerated the activities of NYSUT members statewide in support of other labor unions. "This is exactly who we are as a labor union … we are active, we participate, as you are doing here today, and we educate ourselves” and then educate friends and family on the issues, he said. “You are making the most of the union.”
Cilento, who has led the statewide labor union since 2011, said NYSUT sets a standard for unionism for the rest of the state. When Verizon workers were on strike last year Cilento visited picket lines from Buffalo to points east. At each one, he said, “NYSUT was there.”
“When [UFT President Michael Mulgrew] says, ‘We are one,’ We are one as a labor union,” he said, referring to the commitment and fellowship among the NYS AFL-CIO’s 2.5 million members.
Cilento also addressed a specific issue that is front and center on the state labor movement’s agenda: the state referendum next Nov. 7 that asks voters whether to hold a constitutional convention. State law requires voters to decide this question every 20 years.
This year, as in the past, New York unions are urging members to vote “no.” A convention would give free rein to anti-unionists and school privatization advocates who want to change, among other things, the defined-benefit pension for public employees, the right to public education, workers’ compensation and various social service programs and environmental protections.
“We have to mobilize for a “no” vote. If you think they’re not coming for your pensions, [we] should all have our heads examined,” Cilento said emphatically. “You will lead that fight,” and “we will succeed in our path on a proactive agenda.”
He also offered this uplifting message to the delegates: “We know exactly what we’re fighting for.” He recounted looking into his daughters’ eyes and seeing "the possibility for them to have a brighter future” than the one he envisioned for himself growing up in the Bronx.
Put bluntly, he said, NYSUT’s adversaries fight for their wallets, “for the bottom line. I will take heart over profits any day of the week. You can’t put a price on heart,” Cilento said. It’s an agenda that wins every time, he said.