PEF 39th Annual Convention:
Convention speakers call for unity in the battle for our future
By SHERRY HALBROOK
Speakers who addressed PEF convention delegates at that event in October focused on the need for unity in defending the union from national existential attacks such as the so called “right-to-work” litigation and legislation, and the November ballot proposal to convene a state constitutional convention in 2019.
The speakers included Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, NYS AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento, Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry (by video), NYS United Teachers President Andy Pallotta, American Federation of Teachers Special Counsel Mark Richard, and Lake Placid Mayor Craig Randall, who welcomed the delegates.
In addition, NYS Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, state Sens. Betty Little and David Carlucci, and state Assembly Members Billy Jones and Addie Jenne addressed the delegates at the President’s Reception. Other guest speakers took part in special events and workshops, such as state Assembly Member Ken Blankenbush who joined delegates at the annual veterans luncheon.
Richard, who was PEF’s chief negotiator for the 2015-16 and the 2016-19 PS&T Contracts that were both ratified last year, counseled the delegates to recognize the very dangerous and coordinated tactics being used by a national coalition of very wealthy individuals and corporations to destroy the labor movement, starting with public employee unions in every state that still has them.
“If you can’t pull together, your contract is just a piece of paper. Be strategic. I ask you not to focus on the leaves of the tree, but the spaces between the leaves,” Richard said. Every open space or gap is an opportunity for the union’s enemies to attack and divide its members, he explained.
“They have people every day who are watching us and asking how they can pick us off,” Richard said. “In Georgia, it’s against the law for public employee unions to bargain, and in Texas to meet and confer. In Illinois they are saying whenever a public employee says anything in the workplace you are speaking to government and are lobbying and you are forcing feepayers to support that speech. And they are attacking us both in Albany and in Washington.”
In response to these attacks, the main international unions representing public employees have formed six joint committees to address every possible issue and problem that could result from an anti-union decision by the U.S. Supreme Court early next year on the Janus v. AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) case that would force unions to represent employees who refuse to join them and pay dues.
The four unions in this coalition are SEIU, AFT, AFSCME and the National Education Association.
“The Number 1 essential ingredient is unity, pulling together and doing things in concert,” Richard said. “As long as we are united, we will never be defeated.”
Graves told the delegates about the family history of Charles and David Koch who are among the wealthiest billionaires in the world and how the brothers became bent on destroying the American labor movement, member by member, union by union, law by law, and state by state.
Their father and uncle founded the John Birch Society and schooled Charles and David that it is un-American to have labor unions and to have public schools and public services. They believe business should take over the work of government and the power of the private sector should dominate the public sector. They even want to take away the power of local governments.
To accomplish all of this, they have formed the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to write the laws in every state and nationally to accomplish this, and to organize and fund political candidates to support the legislation.
“Every one of those bills was voted on by corporate lobbyists at secret conferences with legislators,” Graves said.
They write reports claiming the states that pass and sign these bills have the best economies, such as Wyoming, Kansas and Wisconsin. “They rank New York 50th because we haven’t passed their agenda,” Graves said.
Labor and other groups that believe in democracy have organized to resist these tactics. “We pushed Ford, Travelocity, and Enterprise out of ALEC,” Graves said. “We pushed AARP out, but it has returned to ALEC.”
Other groups that are working in coalition with ALEC and the Koch brothers are Americans for Prosperity, which tries to influence state policy, and the Freedom Foundation that is going door-to-door, mailing postcards, phoning and engaging union members to convince them to give up their membership.
“We know they are drilling down through Facebook” to spread their anti-union, anti-government message, ” Graves said.
The Bradley Foundation and U.S. Education Sec. Betsy DeVos, who also is a billionaire, are helping to fund these efforts. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and Rebekah Mercer are also supporting it.
“You are not safe in New York.” Graves said. “People say we can’t fix it. But certainly we will fail if we don’t try. We have a vision and we have a stake in our government and our communities. We are stronger together.”
Speaking as president of the state AFL-CIO, Cilento reminded the delegates that they are a family and while they may disagree about the details, they all want to see PEF and labor prosper and thrive.
“We’re all in it together,” Cilento told them. “And unless we work together, it means nothing.”
He also spoke of how he has come to understand what his father meant when he said the work and sacrifices he made for his union were not just about him. They were about his family.
“Seventeen years ago when my Dad died, my Mom went on collecting his pension” Cilento said. “Four-and-a-half years ago Mom died and my sister and I got letters saying we would split the remaining annuity. My wife and I decided to put it in the bank to help pay for our children’s college expenses. And when I got back in my car after I deposited that check, it hit me what Dad meant. He knew he was building security for his family then and in the future. Now, he would be paying for the first year of college of a granddaughter who was born after he died.
“That’s what they want to take away from us, what we work for every day of our lives.”