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Organized labor flexes muscles to influence Buffalo school vote

The teachers union is typically a major player in Buffalo School Board elections, but this year, educators are getting some help from other labor organizations.

For the first time, the local AFL-CIO affiliate is getting involved, offering support such as coaching candidates and operating phone banks.

Some suburban teachers unions and parents affiliated with the opt-out movement also have jumped in to support candidates challenging incumbents in the current reform majority.

Their effort took center stage Thursday at the annual awards dinner of the Western New York Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO at Lucarelli’s Banquet Center in Lackawanna, which became a platform to influence voters prior to Tuesday’s elections for the six district seats on Buffalo’s nine-member School Board. And the key speaker, New York State United Teachers President Karen E. Magee, delivered a timely message.

“As unions, one of the things we know how to do is fight. At NYSUT, we had a little fight ourselves last year,” Magee said. “We will win and we will prevail because we are on the right side. Labor is the right side.”

Leaders with the AFL-CIO, which does not typically get involved in School Board races, said they jumped in this year because they are concerned about workforce development and the economic future of the region.

“We’re concerned about the future of the Buffalo Public Schools,” said Richard Lipsitz Jr., president of the local labor federation. “We need an educated workforce for all of the jobs that are being created.”

Lipsitz said the group also has concerns about board majority bloc member Carl P. Paladino, who is running for re-election in the Park District, and his history of making racist comments and circulating offensive material.

Event planners said Magee’s appearance five days before the School Board elections was a coincidence, and she did not directly acknowledge the races in her remarks.

But her comments did underscore some of the same issues central in the local School Board races.

“We’ve pushed back against these so-called reformers who believe that school starts with a dollar sign,” she said. “Let’s not forget to elect those who will support the issues important to organized labor.”

Magee has become central to the statewide effort to battle reforms such as standardized testing, teacher evaluations based on test scores and penalties for schools that do not meet certain standards.

Since she became NYSUT president in 2014, the union has successfully pressured Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to back off some of his toughest reforms and drove the ouster of reform-oriented members of the state Board of Regents, which sets education policy. Now, NYSUT and the local AFL-CIO could have a hand forcing the same change on the Buffalo School Board.

Lipsitz said it was the Communications Workers of America that asked the organization to get involved in the Buffalo School Board races – not the Buffalo Teachers Federation. That union’s leader, Debora M. Hayes, who has a long history as a labor and strike leader, was recognized as the area’s labor activist of the year.

“Fighting for the 99 percent is also a question of fighting for good public education and fighting against a local bully and the best friend of Donald Trump in Western New York,” Lipsitz said.

Although Lipsitz did not identify Paladino, his comments were met by an approving murmur throughout the crowd. Paladino has been a harsh critic of the teachers union, accusing it of derailing reform efforts and trying to stack the board that will negotiate its contract.

North District candidate Hope R. Jay, who is attempting to unseat incumbent Jason M. “Jay” McCarthy, attended Thursday’s dinner. So did one of her most high-profile supporters, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.

The labor organization’s involvement underscores an unusually heightened level of interest in this year’s School Board races, in which everyone from the county executive to community activist groups is jockeying to upset control of the board from the current majority.

Buffalo teachers have become increasingly frustrated that union and school leaders have been unable to negotiate a new contract, and many have taken offense at the board’s attempts to lengthen the school day and change other work rules without offering what they feel is adequate compensation.

“Our No. 1 criteria when we were looking at people was candidates who wanted to find common ground,” said BTF President Philip Rumore.

The teachers union circulated petitions for its choice candidates, sent out a flyer and attempted to knock majority bloc members off the ballot. NYSUT organizer Danielle N. Judge, who challenged the petitions of reform candidates, was among the honorees recognized at Thursday’s dinner.

NYSUT also coordinated “Days of Action” that allowed it to organize rallies, forums and other events at schools, giving union officials direct access to teachers in the critical weeks before the election.

On Saturday, the union will sponsor a get-out-the-vote rally in Niagara Square.

The races also drew attention from parents active in the statewide opt-out movement, some of whom made donations to Austin Harig, the 18-year-old student challenging Paladino. The Williamsville Teachers Association also encouraged its members to donate to Harig’s campaign.

In addition to Jay and Harig, the labor group is supporting Theresa A. Harris-Tigg, Sharon M. Belton-Cottman, Jennifer L. Mecozzi and Paulette Woods.

“United we will stand,” Magee said. “We will push back against those who want to change public education, but don’t know a damn thing about public education.”