People Power

Politics are never boring at the COPE conference

Volume CX, No. 10October, 2010

Martha Hyde

Workers who make Mott’s applesauce and other products were on strike for four months.

I recently got an education in the New York State labor movement when I attended the Convention on Political Education (COPE) convention in Albany on Aug. 15 with fellow Executive Board member Tom Olcott and Recording Vice President John O’Connor.

COPE is the legislative arm of the AFL-CIO. The New York State AFL-CIO has 2.5 million members and comprises unions, six central labor councils (of which New York City Central Labor Council is one) and six regional labor councils.

New York State has the highest percentage of union workers – about one in four, compared with about 12.3 percent nationally.

We were in Albany to decide on endorsements of candidates for federal and state offices. We were three of 328 delegates there.

The labor councils around the state made recommendations as did the Executive Council. We were voting to uphold or change the Executive Council’s recommendations. There were 167 endorsements for a total of 243 legislative seats. We also voted to endorse Thomas DiNapoli for state controller and Eric Schneiderman for state attorney general.

The Executive Council’s recommendations were overturned three times and three different issues came to light.

In the case of Senator Bill Larkin (Republican of Cornwall-On-Hudson), the New York State United Teachers was able to get a recommendation of no endorsement changed to an endorsement. They like him because he voted against privatizing the SUNY system.

In the case of Assemblyman Brian Kolb (Republican of Canandaigua) the New York State Public Employees Federation was able to get an endorsement changed to a no endorsement because Assemblyman Kolb is a leading voice in favor of a state constitutional convention. The whole room was very hostile to the idea of a constitutional convention. The best that I can figure is that the public employees and teachers are afraid that public funding for education and the taxation system might fall under a populist axe.

In the case of Assemblyman Dean Murray (Republican of Long Island), the Long Island Federation of Labor was able to get a no endorsement changed to an endorsement of Rob Calarco, his Democratic opponent because Assemblyman Murray is reputedly a Tea Party activist and favors a defined contribution pension system rather than a defined benefit. The public employees of New York State hold very strong positions on all of these issues.

Dramatic moments included the endorsement of Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for governor. The two largest unions, – the New York State United Teachers and Local 1000 of the Civilian Service Employees Association of AFSCME – announced they would decline to make an endorsement but they would not vote against it.

There was a chorus of “ayes” and complete silence when “no’s” were called for – the only time the hall went silent.

Also dramatic was when Recording Secretary Bruce Beal of Local 220 of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union addressed the convention.

Beal spoke about the 300 workers at the Mott’s plant in Williamson, New York, who had been on strike since May 23.

After bargaining for about a month, Texas-based Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (DPS), which owns the plant, imposed a $1.50 an hour cut plus cuts in all benefits.

DPS did not claim poverty; they made over $555 million in profits last year, up from $312 million the year before.

Since the convention, on Sept. 13, Local 220 reached a settlement with DPS. The wages were restored, but are frozen for three years. The defined benefit pension is preserved for current workers, but new hires will have 401k plans. The company’s matching payments to the 401k’s are lower across the board and employees will now have to bear 20 percent of their health care costs. The temporary workers who were hired to replace the strikers will be “phased out” according to DPS. According to Local 220’s Web site, numerous financial and food donations were made in support of the strikers during the four month period.

At the end of the convention, John, Tom and I wondered how Local 802 could have more influence at COPE.

We noted that Roberta Reardon of AFTRA is a member of COPE’s Executive Council. Perhaps if we get COBUG to be more of a presence at the New York City Central Labor Council we might be able to influence COPE that way. It’s worth a try.