NYSUT and affiliates hear from presidential candidate Tim Ryan

Teachers union convention brings thousands of delegates to Albany

Photo of Rick Karlin

ALBANY — Presidential candidate Tim Ryan on Friday spoke to more than 1,000  delegates at the New York State United Teachers convention at the Capital Center.

Of the 21 Democrats running for president, the Ohio congressman is one of the more obscure candidates but that was OK. In fact it may have been one of the reasons he was there.

That’s because NYSUT’s national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, or AFT, is taking a decidedly different approach toward the 2020 presidential race in comparison with 2016.

AFT, considered an essential pillar of support for any Democrat, was badly burned the last time around when their leadership endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2015, a full year before the convention. The early support of Clinton angered those union members who wanted to support Bernie Sanders and it left them on the losing end of the race to Donald Trump.

Union leadership, as well as rank-and-file members, has conceded that. “I think there was a significant backlash,” said Jennifer-Jo Moyer, a teacher from New York City attending Friday’s convention.

So this year, AFT is trying for a more inclusive and deliberate process.

AFT President Randi Weingarten, in her speech before she introduced Ryan to the crowd, noted that the union has a website devoted to gathering input from members on the upcoming races. “Answer the questions. Tell us what you think,” she told NYSUT delegates.

And following his talk to union members, Ryan participated in a “Town Hall” style meeting with a small group of activists.

Topics ranged from the high cost of college and the subsequent loans, to mandated testing. One union member asked Ryan how he plans to win over voters in New York City, which is several times larger than the candidate’s hometown of Youngstown, Ohio.

“My experience is that people are people,” he said.

AFT says there will be a number of such meetings with candidates this year. And during her speech, Weingarten did mention other Democratic candidates the union is engaging with, including Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders.

Normally, endorsing early can have benefits.

“It’s rational from their perspective. You get on the train early and you get rewarded,” said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College and a longtime electoral observer.

But these aren’t normal times, with Trump’s unexpected win in 2016. Public sector unions like NYSUT/AFT are also under additional pressure due to last year’s Supreme Court ruling in the Janus case, which can make it easier for people to leave their unions. That doesn’t appear to be happening at NYSUT, but Janus has caused a rethinking of how labor leaders have to keep their members happy.

The historically large field of Democratic candidates is another complicating factor. “There are too many candidates,” said Muzzio. “It’s more problematic.”

The NYSUT gathering marked the largest convention to come to the Capital Center since it opened in 2017.

That was welcome news to Jill Delaney, president and CEO of Discover Albany, which promotes visitors and tourism in the Albany area.

Overall, more than 2,000 union members were expected for the event, which runs through Saturday.

“We’re using all of our properties congruently,” said Delaney. In addition to filling up the Capital Center, spaces in the adjacent Empire State Plaza also are being used. There are 1,700 room-nights, or rooms booked for the event, and Delaney said $1 million would be a “super conservative estimate” about the economic impact on the area. That represents money spent on ancillary services like restaurants, Uber drivers, bars and other businesses in town.

“This is our proving ground for a multi-site event,” she said.

rkarlin@timesunion.com • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU