Features, Law and Politics, New York

A Constitutional Convention: Nothing More than “Right to Work” by a Different Name

October 4, 2017

By James M. Steinberg, Esq.

Once every 20 years, New Yorkers vote on whether or not a constitutional convention should be convened. This time, with the attack upon workers’ rights so prevalent on both the national and state level, the answer should be a resounding NO”.   From the perspective of organized labor, it comes as now surprise that wealthy special interests which seek to break the back of unions in New York are pontificating upon the use of a constitutional convention as a means of “cleaning up Albany” and “returning government to the people.” These buzz phrases make great sound bites but hide a more sinister goal of weakening New York’s labor unions.

Unlike many other state constitutions, New York’s constitution actually supports workers with explicit protections which could be undermined or completely eliminated if special interests have their way. Section 17 of the New York State constitution provides:

No laborer, worker or mechanic, in the employ of a contractor or subcontractor engaged in the performance of any public work, shall be permitted to work more than eight hours in any day or more than five days in any week, except in cases of extraordinary emergency; nor shall he or she be paid less than the rate of wages prevailing in the same trade or occupation in the locality within the state where such public work is to be situated, erected or used.

Employees shall have the right to organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing. (New. Adopted by Constitutional Convention of 1938 and approved by vote of the people November 8 1938; amended by vote of the people November 6, 2001.)

In these two paragraphs, New York guarantees its citizens: an 8 hour work day, a 5 day work week, prevailing wage protection, the right to organize, and the right to collectively bargain. Each of these protections have been attacked in other states through “right-to-work” laws that claim to protect workers by supposedly not forcing them to join a labor union. The “right-to-work” phrase while appearing to be about providing work opportunities for those not interested in union membership, actually misleads people into believing that compulsory union membership exists. It does not. Since 1947, the “closed shop” has been outlawed under the Taft-Harley law.

Further, and as lied about by “right-to-work” advocates, unions cannot compel their members to contribute to political campaigns. Each member has the right to reject the payment of a portion of his allocation to union sponsored political action committees. However, employees should not be allowed to get a “free ride” when it comes to the negotiation, administration and enforcement of collective bargaining agreements. Unlike in “right-to-work” states, New York workers who refrain from joining the union which negotiates and enforces a contract on their behalf are still required to pay their fair share of the cost for these services. Since unions are required under the Taft-Hartley Act to fairly represent the employees comprising the units they represent, those employees who reap the benefits of the union’s efforts should continue to pay at least their fair share of the administrative cost of that representation.

But this attack is not limited to states. The attack upon organized labor is generating steam at the national level. Earlier this year, House Republicans Joe Wilson (S.C.) and Steve King (Iowa) introduced a national right-to-work bill that would prohibit union security clauses in collective bargaining agreements and allow workers in a collective bargaining unit to not pay anything towards the representational services provided by the union. More recently, President Trump has nominated anti-union attorneys for appointment to the NLRB. In the coming years, a move away from the worker protections advocated by the current Board will most likely be seen. New Yorkers must therefore continue to protect workers.

What has happened in 27 states and our nation’s capital is now on the doorstep of New York. On November 7th, voters will have the opportunity to support workers’ rights as guaranteed by the state’s constitution by voting down a constitutional convention. Voters need to remember that representative democracy is premised upon their ability to vote for candidates who share their ideals and visions for municipal, state and federal government. Accountability is found at the voting booth, not through a protracted constitutional convention process that will no doubt be used by special interests to weaken the rights of New York’s working men and women. Vote “NO” on November 7th for a constitutional convention.

October 4, 2017

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