Constitutional Convention-Unions

FILE - In this May 7, 2015, file photo, labor union members and supporters rally for better wages in New York.  (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

Bebeto Matthews

The outcome of the New York constitutional convention vote wasn't a surprise for observers and those on both sides of the issue who advocated for its approval or defeat. Polls in the weeks leading up to the vote showed that the constitutional convention would be rejected. 

But the stunning part was the margin. In 1997, when this question was last on the ballot, voters rejected the constitutional convention by a 37.6 to 22.1 percent margin. A plurality of voters — 40 percent — left the question blank. 

This year, the vote was a blowout from the beginning. With 97.6 percent of districts reporting, 2,711,229 people voted no. More than three-quarters of voters — 77.65 percent — opposed the convention. Only 15.69 percent, or 547,776 people, voted yes. 

The results are telling. If you add the 1997 no votes with the percentage of voters who left the question blank, you get 77.6 percent — the same number of people who voted no in 2017. 

According to the state Board of Elections, only 6.67 percent of voters left the question blank or had it voided in 2017.

So what happened? Why was the no movement more successful this year? Education and organization were key factors. 

A coalition led by labor unions mobilized early and invested more than $1 million in the effort. "Vote No" yard signs were distributed across the state. Whether you were on Long Island or in western New York, the "Vote No" signs were everywhere. Yard signs weren't the only tool, but when you consider that the pro-constitutional convention crowd didn't have anything similar to counter that push, the signs stood out.

The groups utilized other traditional campaign tools. Andy Pallotta, president of New York State United Teachers, said his membership made more than 500,000 phone calls and went door-to-door urging voters to oppose the convention. 

"Everywhere you turned, you saw a lawn sign, a car magnet or a button urging a 'No' vote — a sign that NYSUT, and labor, remains a strong force in New York state fighting to protect workers from wealthy special interests," Pallotta said. 

Messaging was also important. The coalition, which included groups from both ends of the political spectrum, had its reasons for opposing a convention. For public employee unions, there was a fear that pensions and collective bargaining rights could be impacted. Gun rights groups worried that strict gun control measures could be adopted. Some criticized the delegate selection process and felt it would be an insider's game — that it wouldn't result in any changes. 

The result made it seem like the opponents of a constitutional convention had an easy road to rejecting the constitutional convention, but that wasn't the case. Mario Cilento, president of the NYS AFL-CIO, recalled early polling that showed many voters favored a constitutional convention. Several newspaper editorial boards called for a yes vote on the question. 

Recent polling showed the sentiment shifted. A Siena College poll showed most voters opposed the constitutional convention. 

With the rejection of the constitutional convention, Cilento called it a "defining moment" for organized labor. 

"This victory leaves us well positioned to successfully advocate on behalf of all working men and women because as our opponents know, when the labor movement is thriving we not only raise the wages, benefits and conditions of employment of union members; we raise the standard of living and quality of life of all working people," he said. 

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