Should We Revise the NYC Charter?

Labor Movement Urges, "Vote No in November!"

Volume XCIX, No. 9October, 1999

Joy Portugal

A grab-bag of proposals to amend the New York City charter will appear on the November ballot – and labor and civic organizations are mounting an energetic “vote no” campaign.

They charge that the ballot measure is a massive attack on democracy, in that it would transfer important powers from the city council to the mayor. Voters would be compelled to cast a single yes or no vote for a 14 separate, unrelated proposals.

The campaign has brought together an unprecedented coalition of elected officials at every level (including seven members of Congress, 30 state legislators and 24 city council members from all five boroughs), unions and civic organizations in a “Vote No on Charter” campaign.

At a press conference on Sept. 9, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields assailed a “tainted process” that did not allow time for the public “to adequately study, participate and be involved in changing a document that really governs the way we live, the way we participate in government, and how we go about doing business.” Fields noted that “each of these issues is important enough to stand alone.” If voters adopt the charter revision, she said, “we would be undermining the people whom we have elected to represent us here at City Hall.”

Speaking on behalf of the city’s unions – 19 of which had already joined in the coalition – was Mike McGuire, Secretary-Treasurer of the Mason Tenders District Council and a member of the Working Families Party executive board. “When there is a mayoral power grab, like we see here, it does exactly the same thing as when we see workers being exploited,” he said. “It takes away power from the people on the lower rungs of the ladder.”

Adopting the proposed Charter revision, McGuire said, would strip much of the power from city council members and put it under the office of the mayor. It would require “a super-majority for the city council to pass a tax increase and a super, super-majority of 80 percent to override a mayoral veto . . . It’s unfair, it’s not the right way to do it, and organized labor is opposed to it,” McGuire said.


Over the next two months, the coalition will engage in a wide range of activities to educate the public about what is involved, and mobilize voters to defeat the referendum.

Unlike the Charter Commission’s hasty summer schedule, which involved little outreach to the community and just five public hearings, coalition members will put their main focus on public education, through direct mail, media outreach, and contact with community groups. Unions opposed to the referendum represent more than 1.5 million working New Yorkers, and they will use rallies, mailings and local publications to inform members of what is at stake. (A similar public education campaign by labor in 1997 resulted in the overwhelming defeat of a referendum for a New York State Constitutional Convention.)

The coalition will continue to analyse the proposals and publicize problems they identify. They will encourage community groups to adopt resolutions and petitions opposing charter revision.

The labor movement is expected to play a large role in mobilizing members for a huge get-out-the-vote effort to bring New Yorkers to the polls on Nov. 2.


A number of elected officials and organizations have issued statements outlining the dangers of the proposed changes. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields and Public Advocate Mark Green contend that the proposal to hold an off-season vote on a successor to the mayor would violate the Voting Rights Act by disenfranchising minority voters.

Assemblymember Richard Gottfried notes that the proposal “would weaken important checks and balances, and shift too much unchecked power to the mayor.” He pointed out that it would water down safeguards against corruption and fraud in city contracting by changing regulations that govern procurement procedures, and make it harder for the city council to restore cuts in services. “The work our city government does – schools, libraries, police, fire, street repair, child protection – needs improving, not restricting,” he said.


Mayor Giuliani picked 15 political allies, including ten contributors to his campaigns, to serve on the Charter Revision Commission. In July they put forward 39 separate proposals, including one that would require an election to be held early in 2001 if the mayor should be elected to the U.S. Senate. (Many people believe that the motivation for revising the charter was the mayor’s desire to prevent Public Advocate Mark Green – who under the current charter would automatically serve out the balance of the mayor’s term – from assuming that position.)

The commission issued its proposals in the middle of summer, allowing just one public hearing in each borough before the final wording of the referendum was decided on. The initial proposals were immediately denounced by an extraordinary coalition of public officials, labor and civic groups, and the hearings generated a firestorm of protest. (See page 9 for statements made by leaders of the UFT and DC 37, opposing the proposal.)

On Sept. 1, the commission put forward a pared-down list. In an effort to disarm critics, they specified that any special election for a new mayor will not take effect until the year 2002 – which means that Public Advocate Green is not affected.

But the opposition was not quieted, because so many bad proposals remain, and the campaign to defeat charter revision will likely pick up steam until Nov. 2.

For more information about the issues or to find out how you can participate in the campaign, call 802 Legislative Director Judy West at (212) 245-4802, ext. 176.