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Paid Family Leave for City Teachers Now


de Blasio classroom visit

Mayor de Blasio visits a classroom (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office)


Every work day for the past nine school years, I have taught and learned with young people from stressed economic backgrounds as a New York City public school teacher. Every day, I confront the realities of a system that puts short-term profits over children’s well-being and the long-term health of our city’s families.

I see scars on adolescents whose parents were forced into a bind that Mayor de Blasio has described as “the impossible choice between bonding with their child and paying their bills.”

Scars on students whose parents were unable to take the time to bond with them because of economic pressures. On others whose parents did take time off, but now struggle even more to make ends meet. I see adolescent children fall behind their peers because they have to take on responsibilities at home providing childcare to infant family members so that their parents can rush back to work.

Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child confirms what those of us who work with young people know: “responsive relationships early in life are the most important factor in building sturdy brain architecture,” the neurological foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health. When parents do not have time to bond with new young ones in their lives we all suffer.

For too long, New York denied the children of all city employees access to the benefits that come from paid family leave for parent-child bonding.

Nearly two years ago, Mayor de Blasio publicly recognized the foolishness embedded in this system. He created and imposed on city managers a program that provides up to 12 weeks of paid family leave.

But that program penalized many managers with the loss of promised salary and vacation benefits. According to the city’s Independent Budget Office the program was not a cost to the city budget, rather it actually resulted in a savings to the city of close to $6 million. The mayor used his unilateral power to create a system where he got more than he gave up. That is not my understanding of how a “benefit” works.

In order to extend paid family leave to members of municipal labor unions, the city and unions must collectively bargain a new agreement. Teachers cannot sign on to the kind of one-sided plan that de Blasio instituted with managerial employees.

We know that governments can create family leave without breaking the bank. Cities across the country — including ones in the south and midwest that are not known for progressive social policy — have found ways to fund paid family leave policies for all city employees without going bankrupt. For example, Wake County, North Carolina funds the cost through the city budget.

We also know that negotiation means give and take. All of us understand the benefits of parental leave for children and families, but different teachers will have different understandings of the cost side. I’m a chapter leader in the UFT and I would love to have conversations about the appropriate costs of such a plan. We could have these conversations in our chapters and as a union if the mayor’s team would be up front about their calculations and requirements. But the team has provided none of these details publicly. I’m left to wonder if they are trying to accomplish the Mayor’s lofty goals without expending any resources to do so.

For 21 months, New York City has formally recognized the importance of paid family leave while accepting a policy that denies this benefit to our city’s educators and their children, as well as many thousands of other union employees and their families. Like a decision that restricts mail delivery for postal service workers, this hypocritical policy denies us what we provide to the rest of the city. The people who care for, educate, and support the young people of New York City should have the chance to care for, educate, and support our own children and families.

A good city takes care of the people who take care of it. We do this because it is the right thing to do, the right way to show value for the hard-working folks who make our city run. We also have a self-interest in providing services to city employees — services that make them more effective workers, services that make our city a more appealing place to live. Rather than treating teachers who want family leave like we are asking for a handout, the city should be partnering with us to find ways to support the youngest and most vulnerable of our city’s citizens without sacrificing the work we do. Rather than dragging its feet, the mayor’s team should use the political capital from his re-election to create a family leave policy for all employees.

In the mayor’s own words, “Paid parental leave means healthier and more financially stable families, more effective workplaces, and a stronger and more just city – which everyone can get behind.”

It’s time the administration got behind a real effort to create a parental leave program that works for everyone.

***
John Troutman McCrann is a math teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan.

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Politics, Money, and the ‘Spirit of the Law:’ Why New York Needs a Constitutional Convention


vote for a constitutional convention

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


The federal corruption trial of Norman Seabrook, former head of the correction officers’ union, has introduced new evidence of the contaminating role money plays in politics throughout the state. Jona Rechnitz, a wealthy real estate developer with a taste for power, became a star witness in the case after he got caught in the middle of an alleged deal that allowed Seabrook to get a kickback for investing the union’s pension funds in a risky hedge fund. Rechnitz had also been associated with allegations concerning the Port Authority and Westchester County, was found to have given expensive gifts to police brass in New York City in exchange for special treatment, and had donated so much money to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s election campaign in 2013 that he was appointed to the mayor’s inauguration committee.

In the course of testimony, Rechnitz could not seem to restrain himself in bragging about his easy access to City Hall after raising more than $150,000 for the mayor -- access the mayor partially denies. In March, de Blasio had been relieved of criminal charges in two investigations when the Manhattan District Attorney and the U.S. Attorney issued coordinated statements indicating that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him or his staff.

In a ten-page public letter, however, District Attorney Cyrus Vance declared, “the parties involved cannot be appropriately prosecuted,” but added, “this conclusion is not an endorsement of the conduct at issue.” He elaborated, “the transactions appear contrary to the intent and spirit of the laws that impose candidate contribution limits,” further explaining that the relevant statutes “are meant to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption in the campaign financing process.”

With all due respect to Mr. Vance, I beg to differ with his conclusion, at least in part.

“Spirit of the law” is a legal concept that commonly refers to higher order values that statutes are designed to fulfill. In this particular case, the laws in question could have been intended to limit contributions, or more generally “prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption,” but practically speaking, they are only half-hearted attempts to do either. When it comes to elections or politics, the real intent of the state law in New York is to create the illusion that legislators intend to limit the role money can play, while they incorporate loopholes to undermine effectiveness. Such a charade is the real “spirit of the law,” and one reason to seize opportunity to change it.

Let me be specific. In New York State, an individual cannot donate more than $10,300 to the campaign of a single candidate. Ostensibly, the objective here is to prevent a donor’s undue influence over an elected official. A person can, however, donate up to a $103,000 to county political committees, which in turn can support a candidate with that money and more.

District Attorney Vance had his own explaining to do last month when it was disclosed around two controversial and high profile cases that he took campaign contributions from lawyers who conduct business with his office. When asked about the practice, Vance’s response was “It’s legal.”

The sad reality is that money is the fuel of American politics. If you want to enter the political arena, the first thing you need to do is fundraise. Unless you are independently wealthy, you need to attract donors. People don’t always contribute to campaigns out of altruism to greater causes or belief in a candidate’s capacity to do good. Donors, especially big donors, expect to be granted influence that may or may not benefit them personally.

Independently wealthy candidates who can afford to spend their own money on an election bring their own problems. Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent such unfathomable amounts of money to get himself elected three times (nearly $110 million in 2009 alone) that it distorted the democratic process. (His main opponent, William Thompson, spent $10 million). Under the law, there is no limit to what a candidate can spend on his own campaign, even in New York City, which has significantly more robust campaign finance laws than at the state level.

In fact, Bloomberg had so much money that he famously gave it away. When he was in office, Bloomberg’s top deputy mayor simultaneously served as the CEO of his private philanthropic foundation, which dispersed millions of dollars to applicants for various projects. The city Conflicts of Interest Board approved the arrangement, making it legal. When Bloomberg petitioned the City Council to overturn a term limits law so he could seek a third term, there were press reports that his aides pressured beneficiaries of his philanthropy to testify on his behalf.

Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature have ignored appeals to enact meaningful election reforms to reduce the influence that money has in politics. In 2014, Cuomo abruptly and controversially dismissed his own Moreland Commission investigating corruption in the state. The Legislature in Albany is reputed to be one of the most corrupt and dysfunctional in the country. Over the past ten years, more than two dozen of its members have been convicted or sanctioned for wrongdoing, including the top leaders of both houses, who have been sentenced to jail (their convictions were each recently overturned based on new Supreme Court precedence, but they will be retried in 2018).

The legislative process is invested in the status quo and rigged against reform.

New Yorkers have a legal way to circumvent the legislative process by holding a constitutional convention if they vote to do so on Election Day. It is question one on the back of the ballot, where a “yes” vote would trigger the convention process.

A convention would open discussion on a range of controversial issues, and it cannot fix all that is wrong with a money-driven political process that has been further compromised by the federal judiciary. Yet, given the hidebound thinking that immobilizes Albany, a convention is the only way to get the reform ball rolling on matters that go to the heart of the democratic process and its fundamental integrity.

***
Joseph P. Viteritti is the Thomas Hunter Professor of Public Policy at Hunter College and author of The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]

Why Tenants Should Vote Against a Constitutional Convention


seniors affordable housing

(photo via The Mayor's Office)


Every 20 years, the New York State Constitution mandates a statewide vote on whether to convene a convention to consider amending it. On Tuesday, Election Day, New Yorkers will vote “yes” or “no.” This measure, question one of three on the back of the ballot, is more important than anything on the front.

Tenants Political Action Committee debated this question at length, and despite many arguments in favor, we voted unanimously to oppose a “con con” this time around.

This was not a decision we took lightly. With a state government that is a model of dysfunction and gridlock, it is tempting to try an end-run around the governor and state Legislature to attempt necessary reforms they have refused to enact despite the stunning number of politicians who have been convicted of corruption and gone to prison.

Many New Yorkers of good will believe that a constitutional convention could force such reforms into being, and indeed that is a theoretical outcome. But the risk of a negative result for tenants and other constituencies that do not have access to piles of cash is very real.

One negative is that delegates are chosen based on the 63 state Senate districts. Because Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo allowed the state Senate Republicans to draw hyper-partisan district lines to preserve their shrinking majority, this could result in Republican delegates to a convention having a majority.

There is every reason to believe that the very politicians we now criticize for refusing to enact progressive reforms would control the convention. Current and former elected officials, and even lobbyists, are eligible to run, and legislators could use their superior name recognition and campaign funds to outgun grassroots candidates. Anyone who understands how Albany really works sees the probable composition of a convention as inclined to do the bidding of special interests.

Beyond the potential to water down critical protections for poor people, workers, civil rights, and wilderness, there is one possible “reform” of special importance to tenants: allowing special interests to place legislation directly on the ballot by petition. Many states allow this already. New York does not.

If such a referendum process was added to the state constitution, it is not hard to imagine the real estate lobby initiating a statewide referendum to terminate rent control laws, which only exist in New York City and the downstate suburbs. In fact, this is exactly how Massachusetts ended rent controls in 1994, passing a statewide referendum 52 to 48 percent. Only three cities in the eastern part of the state had rent control – Boston, Cambridge and Brookline – and the landlords’ multi-million-dollar media campaign in central and western Massachusetts made much of the fact that the mayor of Cambridge lived in a rent-controlled apartment.

The analogy with New York is clear. New York City landlords would spend any amount to get rid of rent regulations via statewide ballot initiative. And if they failed the first time, they would keep trying.

Some progressive groups take the position that this would be a good change in New York. They should consider the downside. Ballot initiatives are easier to mount by groups with superior resources, and easier for them to win for the same reason.

We think there is a better way: in the last year, thousands of New Yorkers have become involved in organizations that work to raise political awareness and seek to hold politicians accountable, with a focus on swing districts and turncoat Democrats. The energy coming out of these efforts is inspiring. Let’s harness it to elect better legislators and change our laws at last.

***
Michael McKee is treasurer of the Tenants Political Action Committee. On Twitter @TenantsPACNY.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]



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