Why teachers are backing Hawkins-Jones

October 30, 2014

Julian Guerrero reports on the success of the Green Party campaign of Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones in drawing support from teachers unions and progressive groups.

WITH LESS than a week to go before Election Day, Howie Hawkins's campaign for New York governor on the Green Party ticket continues to surpass expectations, reaching 9 percent in statewide polls and picking up unprecedented endorsements from groups normally loyal to the Democratic Party.

Over the course of October, Hawkins and lieutenant governor candidate Brian Jones received endorsements from six teachers' unions: the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association, Valley Central Teachers Association, Plainview-Old Bethpage Congress of Teachers, East Williston Teachers Association, Lakeland Federation of Teachers and the Buffalo Teachers Federation--this last local union represents educators in the second-largest city in the state.

In addition, the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, Village Independent Democrats, Prospect Heights Democrats for Reform, Southern Brooklyn Democrats, Downtown Independent Democrats and Gramercy Stuyvesant Independent Democrats have all endorsed Hawkins/Jones. This is the first time many of these clubs have ever supported an independent third party.

Green Party candidate for governor of New York Howie Hawkins speaks at a protest
Green Party candidate for governor of New York Howie Hawkins speaks at a protest

This slew of support arrived in the week leading up to the one and only gubernatorial debate on October 22--where Hawkins seemed to be the only candidate addressing voters' concerns. But the endorsements are a testament to the longstanding and widespread discontent with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's corporate agenda and the alternative vision that the Hawkins/Jones campaign has been putting forward.

In the televised debate, Hawkins put forward clear alternatives for New York state, from banning hydro-fracking, to fully funding public schools, to issues that are rarely heard in mainstream politics, such as improving public transportation for the working class and establishing a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate the damage done to communities of color by the war on drugs.

Meanwhile, the Republican candidate Rob Astorino and Libertarian candidate Michael McDermott focused on taking shots at Cuomo, who used his own time primarily to justify his failed policies.

ANDREW CUOMO is widely despised by New York progressives for his pro-corporate and anti-union agenda. He lost further credibility by shutting down his own anti-corruption commission when it started investigating charges against his own allies (the attorney general's office is now investigating Cuomo's handling of the affair). Most recently, Cuomo embarrassed himself by issuing a quarantine order for all health workers coming from West Africa that was immediately criticized by public health authorities and the White House.

The Democratic clubs that endorsed the Green Party campaign are liberal and progressive groups that might have cast their discontent with Cuomo's rightward shift by voting on the ballot line of the Working Families Party (WFP), a party formed in New York state by a coalition of unions and progressive groups.

But since the WFP endorsed Cuomo, these clubs felt that their only way to send a message to the Democratic Party was to endorse Hawkins and Jones. It is to the credit of these clubs that they see through the faulty logic of "pressuring Cuomo by voting for Cuomo" upheld by the WFP and, most recently, the Nation magazine.

The nearly unprecedented support for a left-wing independent party coming from teachers' unions might prove to be much more significant in the long run. Cuomo sparked teacher resistance with his criminal underfunding of public schools, while publically placing blame on teachers and their unions for failing schools.

In an interview with the New York Daily News editorial board, Cuomo indicated his plans to ramp up his offensive on public education in his next term, pushing harder for teacher evaluations tied to the Common Core curriculum and supporting charter schools in an effort to "to break what is in essence one of the only remaining public monopolies."

The Hawkins campaign has prioritized the fight for public education from day one, beginning with Hawkins' decision to pick as a running mate Brian Jones, a longtime public school teacher and vocal advocate for public schools, teachers and students. This choice for lieutenant governor sent a message that the Green Party campaign was going to make the fight for education one of its central planks.

Endorsements from two organizations active in the movement to opt out of high-stakes testing--the Badass Teachers Association and United Opt Out--gave the Hawkins/Jones campaign legitimacy among teachers and parents. The next major endorsement came from the well-known public education advocate Diane Ravitch, shortly after liberal Zephyr Teachout lost the Democratic primary to Cuomo.

The leadership of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT)--the statewide federation of teachers' unions--pushed for an endorsement of Cuomo, but had to settle for not endorsing any candidate after it faced fierce opposition from the membership. For many teachers and their respective locals, this position of "neutrality" from NYSUT was too much to bear in the face of a vicious attack on their profession and communities.

Bucking NYSUT's decision to stay silent, six teachers locals, beginning with the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association, have taken a bold step forward by endorsing the Hawkins/Jones campaign, registering their discontent both with Cuomo and NYSUT's leadership.

The debate inside the union federation over the governor's race has contributed to a new caucus called Stronger Together, which is mounting a challenge to NYSUT's ineffective attempts to push back against the efforts to privatize public education.

THE DEMOCRATIC Clubs' endorsement of Hawkins is aimed primarily at trying to shift the Democratic Party to the left and open up space for more progressive candidates like Teachout.

But the union support signifies a different vision altogether for public education than the corporate "reform" that Democrats have championed since Obama stepped into office. Although one can speculate whether these endorsements for Hawkins and Jones would have come had Teachout won the Democratic primary, they represent a rare opportunity for building working class organizations independent of the Democrats.

Just as it has for the public education movement, the Hawkins campaign has given hope and momentum to social justice activists and environmental organizations, and acted as a megaphone for social movements in the mainstream media. No other candidate so forcefully argued for the needs of working people in New York in the gubernatorial debates, making the connection between the need for both an immediate shift to renewable sustainable green energy and well-paying jobs for the 7 percent of unemployed New Yorkers through Hawkins's call for a Green New Deal.

The campaign has also helped sharpen the left in the state as the battle for who to endorse for governor has galvanized progressives, clarifying the battle lines between those who share a social justice vision and those who are for the status quo. There is growing media speculation that a strong Hawkins turnout might hurt Cuomo's chances for a future presidential run.

No one knows how long the current show of no confidence in the Democratic Party will last, but the significance of teachers' unions breaking from the Democrats in this year's gubernatorial election should not be underestimated. The Democratic Party will likely make moves over the next few years to try to bring back these forces into their fold, but how successful they will be in bringing back working people will depend on the actions and vision of a new variable in the equation: the Green Party.

What is sure is that when New Yorkers go to the polls next week, they can actually vote for what they want and not what they would least rather have. Socialists and leftists in New York should make sure to vote for Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones on Election Day.

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