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Teachers from across the state began descending on Albany Tuesday for a series of high-profile meetings with lawmakers, a small but significant part of their unions’ overall lobbying strategies.

A high school marching band helped start off the New York State United Teachers’ lobby day in the late morning, leading hundreds bused in from around the state on a parade outside the state Capitol building. At a rally, the crowd of teachers, students and community organizers asked for more school funding and called Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget, which increases state aid by 4.4 percent, “bananas” because it wasn’t enough.

teachers union lobbying
Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director for Alliance for Quality Education, an organization that co-hosts Lobby Day with NYSUT. (Photo courtesy GothamSchools)

Today’s message will feature a different union — the city’s United Federation of Teachers — with different budget priorities and a more powerful audience. The UFT wants money for teacher training centers, community schools, and child care, and it has reserved speaking slots at its rally for the legislature’s three leaders: Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, Senate Republican Dean Skelos and Senate Democrat Jeff Klein.

The two lobby days, which include union members and their supporters, are among the most visible manifestations of the unions’ annual behind-the-scenes effort to influence how state policies are shaped and money is spent. Each year, New York’s teacher unions spend millions to organize large rallies, launch statewide advertising campaigns and pay teams of staff lobbyists to work directly with elected officials on specific legislation.

The UFT spent more than $1.86 million on lobbying expenses in 2012, including thousands of dollars on catering for phone banks, cell phone reimbursements and postage, according to records filed with the New York State Ethics Commission. And while NYSUT spent dramatically less on lobbying than in previous years, the state union still spent $1.7 million last year.

The two unions, like many of their counterparts across the country, are an ever-present force at the state capitol, lobbying legislators and organizing their members to reach out to them. Put together, the unions represent about 800,000 teachers, school staff, nurses, college faculty (and even more than 1,000 lifeguards). By staying closely involved, they’ve been able to score key legislative victories – and soften the blows of some defeats.

teachers union lobbying
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“The real power of the unions is not so much the dollar amount in any given year,” said Joe Williams, director of Democrats for Education Reform, an advocacy group that contributes to reform-minded Democrats and lobbies for specific education policies. “The fact that they go at it year after year after year forces groups that are pushing ideas and the legislation that the unions [are] opposed to to be very smart about selecting issues.”

In their filings with the state’s ethics commission, groups are required to list any bill that they “expect” to lobby on. Each year, NYSUT and UFT list hundreds, many having to do with healthcare or schools, such as a bill to study the option of a four-day school week or one about radon testing in schools.

But other bills on the unions’ list fall outside of their normal purview. Among the bills that the UFT and NYSUT said they expected to lobby on in 2012 was one that would “direct the commissioner of health to establish a schedule of fees for the use and maintenance and repair of air conditioners used by residents of adult homes.” Another, Senate Bill 1255, would make the monk parakeet a protected bird.

Listing so many bills, the UFT said, is a way to err on the side of caution and guarantee that the list covers everything any union lobbyist might be asked about. In reality, the organizations pour the bulk of their time and resources into a few key bills.

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Brownsville Academy senior Tyrone Francisco and several of his classmates meets with Senator John Sampson’s Chief of Staff. (Photo courtesy GothamSchools)

In 2009, the UFT pushed for incorporating transparency requirements for New York City school closures into the reauthorization of mayoral control; now there must be a hearing and impact statement before a school is shuttered. In 2011, the union was able to defeat Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s push for an end to seniority-based layoffs.

But even when bills that the unions opposed gained traction, they have been able to help craft compromises. UFT officials explained that when a bill clearly has enough support to pass, its lobbyists focus on helping to shape the specific details. In the 2012 teacher evaluation bill, for instance, they worked on an amendment to the appeals process. When legislators voted to raise the state’s charter school cap in 2010, the UFT succeeded in establishing a limit on how many of the schools could open in a given year and how many could be in New York City.

Traditionally, NYSUT has outspent the UFT — and virtually all other groups that lobby in Albany. In 2010, NYSUT spent $4.7 million, the second most of any lobbying organization, and $4.2 million in 2011, which ranked third, according to a report by the New York Public Interest Research Group.

But in 2012, NYSUT slowed its rate of spending on lobbying and was surpassed by the UFT, its NYC affiliate, records show. (In 2012, by contrast, the UFT slightly increased their lobbying expenditures from 2011.)

One reason, spokesman Carl Korn said, was that, compared to 2011, when the union spent big to kill a “Tier VI” bill that would have required its members to pay more to tap into their pension benefits, there were fewer contentious bills to fight.

The union usually advertises in local markets to urge voters to pass their proposed school budgets. But few of them were contentious in 2012, due to a property tax cap that limited budget growth to just a couple percentage points, Korn said.

“We typically do media buys on state budget and school budgets and if there is an extraordinary legislative measure,” Korn said.

Most of the money NYSUT saved on advertising went toward other political strategies. In a heated election year in which Democrats had a realistic shot at taking over leadership in the New York State Senate, the union poured $4.5 million into polling, advertisements, and direct contributions for its preferred candidates in hotly contested races.

NYSUT’s lobbying expenses come as the organization’s financial books are in question. The union reported a nearly $30 million deficit on its latest tax forms submitted to the federal government, first reported this week in the Albany Times Union. (Attributing the shortfall to an accounting issue involving pensions, Korn said the union’s actual deficit was closer to $7.8 million.)

Lobbying often means hiring an outside firm to persuade legislators. While each organization does have employees that devote part or all of their time to working directly with senators and representatives, together, their overall lobbying strategy is diverse, relying on member organization and public awareness as well.

In 2012, NYSUT spent at least $114,840 on advertising and $17,565 on member giveaways, including $1,666 for clacker noisemakers. That year, the UFT reported spending $11,144 on iPads and $10,185 on t-shirts. Another $51,770 went to make a bulk “first aid kit/nylon bag with UFT logo” buy; items such as the kits are given out at UFT booths at events like Harlem Week and the West Indian Day parade in Brooklyn.

Much of NYSUT’s more than $360,000 in itemized expenses went to member reimbursements for Lobby Days in Albany, where teachers visit the capitol and meet with legislators. The Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy organization that receives funding from NYSUT and co-hosts its lobby day, has spent more than $200,000 on lobbying over the past two years.

At least $140,974 of the UFT’s 2012 expenses went to Lobby Day costs, such as buses, parking, buttons, and staff accommodations.

Not all of the unions’ lobbying efforts are captured in their spending reports. Mobilizing members is often a crucial lobby activity for teachers unions across the country, said Dara Zeehandelaar, a research manager at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. But expenses for such “internal communications” may not always be reported as lobbying expenditures, she said.

“The power of the union is not quantifiable with the dollar amount because you can’t put a price tag on sending an email,” Zeehandelaar said. “It’s part of the teachers union culture. As a teacher you expect to get that message from your union. … That’s not going to show up in your financial reports.”

Take, for instance, what happened months after New York City’s release of teacher performance data sparked nationwide outcry by teachers and their unions. Lawmakers sought to prevent it from happening again through legislation. The legislation faced considerable opposition from free speech advocates and, importantly, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is a significant donor to Senate Republicans. Bloomberg saw the public’s access to performance data as critical to a high standard of accountability.

NYSUT asked its vast membership to tell their legislators, in emails, letters, phone calls and even faxes, to support legislation that would bar the public from seeing teacher ratings. The campaign, which relied on teachers to voluntarily and individually lobby lawmakers, yielded 33,000 faxes and “thousands” more calls and letters, Korn said.

On June 21, much to Bloomberg’s frustration, the legislature passed a privacy law that would limit access to teacher ratings to the parents of each teacher’s students.

“NYSUT’S strength comes not from its lobbying but from the tens of thousands of energized teachers in districts across the state who are knowledgeable with the issues and will work with candidates who will support public education and organized labor,” Korn said. “Elected leaders listen to their constituents.”

In 2010, Democrats for Education Reform went head to head with the teachers unions in New York, pushing to raise the state’s charter cap and devoting more than $6.5 million primarily to produce ads in favor of the bill. DFER ultimately won a partial victory, but had to outspend the unions to do so.

“I can’t imagine that’s ever going to happen again,” Williams said of beating the unions, adding that his group would be unable to routinely challenge them. “You can’t afford to fight incremental battles with the union. They’ll demolish you.”

Sarah Darville contributed reporting.

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