Faculty Union Referendum Challenges University Support for Chambers of Commerce

by Martha McCluskey[1]

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported on faculty and staff union action at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, calling for the University to withdraw its official membership in two chambers of commerce groups that engage in pro-business electoral politics and political lobbying.  In response, a spokesperson for the University affirmed its position that membership in these two business groups was appropriate as part of the University’s efforts to improve local economic conditions and quality of life.  The business groups are leaders in statewide political activity aimed at reducing government social spending, capping government employment and benefits, and opposing legislative protection for workers, consumers, and the environment.

My statement supporting the referendum follows:


UB Should Not Officially Take Sides in Electoral Politics

University administrators are not, and should not be, exempt from requirements prohibiting university employees from using state resources for electoral campaigning.

In 2010, when the California Chamber of Commerce directly endorsed political candidates,  University of California President Mark Yudof resigned his position on the board of directors of that group, stating: As the president of a public university, I cannot take sides in electoral politics.”[2] The chancellor of California’s community college system also resigned.

UB’s Faculty/Staff Handbook, I.G. President’s Statement on Political Fund-Raising (Sept 23, 1999) states:

There must be a clear separation between political campaign activities and the performance of duties as employees of the State University of New York. Political activities, including fund-raising, may not be conducted on university property or time, using university funds (all sources), or in UB’s name.[3]

Buffalo Niagara Partnership (Partnership) Directly Endorses Candidates

UB is listed as a “major investor” in the Partnership, along with Bank of America, Key Bank, Delaware North Companies, and several other private corporations.  UB President Satish Tripathi, like the preceding UB President, serves on the Board of Directors of that group in his official capacity representing UB.   UB pays $47,994 in annual membership dues to the Partnership from state funds.[4]  It is true that the Partnership maintains a separate Political Action Committee (PAC) for money that goes to individual candidates’ campaign funds.  However, the Partnership also directly engages in electoral activity for political candidates on behalf of its members.  The Partnership does not act through its separate PAC when it endorses candidates, when it promotes these candidates through the Partnership’s own public relations campaigns, and when it engages in its extensive lobbying activities.

In 2011, the Partnership highlighted its success in achieving its central political goal for 2010:  to “switch the NYS Senate back to Republican control”[5] through an extensive public relations campaign on behalf of selected state senate candidates.

In October 2011, the Partnership (not its PAC) announced its endorsement of four candidates in the fall elections, linking these endorsements to its “core function” of advocacy and explaining that its “members and staff have been actively engaged in a series of related initiatives to identify the most employer friendly/pro economic growth candidates and to help them get elected on November 8.”[6]

The Business Council of New York State Directly Endorses and Promotes Electoral Candidates

In 2010, the Business Council expanded its political activities to directly engage in electoral politics.   UB continues to be an institutional member of this group, paying $5,000 in annual dues[7] and allowing the Business Council to act in its name.   The Council endorsed 15 candidates for state senate (all Republicans); 8 candidates for state assembly (7 Republicans, 1 Democrat); along with the Democratic candidate for Governor.[8] Like the Partnership, the Business Council worked to “flip” control of the state senate to Republicans in 2010.[9]  Furthermore, the Business Council’s electoral involvement appears directly aimed at weakening political support for public employees’ unions.[10]

This Political Involvement Is New and Different

The University of California leaders’ resignation (see above) followed a shift in direction by some chambers of commerce across the country, after the 2010 Supreme Court’s Citizens United[11]  ruling lifted previous restrictions on election spending by such groups (which tend to be subject to fewer public disclosure requirements than PACs and therefore particularly attractive conduits for campaign funding).   The Business Council’s 2010 endorsements were the first in that group’s 30-year history.[12]  In 2006, the Partnership took initiatives to step up its political activity,[13] and by 2010, the Partnership claimed that it had become recognized as “among the most politically aggressive regional business organizations in the country.” [14]

While some public university officials in a few other states appear to continue to serve on the boards of chambers of commerce, some if not all of these chambers of commerce appear to refrain from direct involvement in electoral politics.[15]

Through its membership in the Partnership and the Business Council, UB also supports the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to which both groups belong.  The U.S. Chamber’s controversial recent political stands on issues such as climate change, health reform, and financial regulation, and its increased role in funding Republican Congressional candidates,[16] have led many major private businesses – including Apple, Nike, and Yahoo!– along with numerous state and local chambers, to withdraw from membership in the U.S. Chamber. [17]   By similarly withdrawing its membership in these affiliated groups, UB will not be disengaging from business concerns but instead will be affirming the more nonpartisan and less ideological approach to business politics taken by many leading businesses and chambers of commerce.

Membership In These Groups Supports a Controversial Political Agenda Unrelated to UB’s  Mission

As an official member of these business groups, UB gives its name and public resources to a controversial and wide-ranging political agenda under the authority of external private interests and not clearly related to UB’s institutional mission. The referendum’s question is not whether faculty or staff agree with any of the particular political positions of these groups, but instead whether the University should officially take political positions on policy issues that appear to stray far from its direct institutional mission.

Business Council’s political goals:
The Business Council states that it represents the political interests of “some of the largest and most important corporations in the world,” including Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, and Verizon.[18]     The Business Council lists the following as its 2011 priorities:

  • Impose a State Spending Cap (limit annual increases in state spending)
  • Support consolidation of local governments and services
  • Reduce size and cost of the government workforce
  • Adopt a hard hiring freeze for state and local agencies

Among the bills that the Business Council  lobbied against last year: a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking); greenhouse gas emissions reporting requirements; expanded government authority to prosecute financial fraud; requirements to cover autism treatment in employer-provided health insurance; the New York State Fair Pay Act and Public Sector Comparable Worth bills; protections for workplace whistleblowers; legislation creating a cause of action against workplace bullying; legislation applying the Freedom of Information Act to public university research foundations; and increased protections against toxic chemicals in children’s toys.

Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s top political goals for 2011 include opposing public disclosure requirements for corporate campaign donations; opposing the NY State Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Bill; opposing expansion of state prevailing wage laws; opposing the Millionaires Fair Share Tax; and supporting federal legislation protecting “free trade” with Turkey.[19]

Official Neutrality Protects Politics and Academics

This referendum does not ask UB, or its employees, to stay out of politics or out of the community.   Instead, by seeking to distinguish UB’s political voice from these groups and to separate UB from electoral politics, this referendum aims to encourage accountability, transparency, and independence in UB’s political participation and civic engagement.  These controversial public policy positions deserve open debate and careful research.  UB’s leadership (like faculty and staff) should be free to defend particular conclusions about public policy based on their scholarly expertise and personal views, or to make arguments about the relationship between UB’s institutional mission and any of these policy positions.  Like other leading public universities, UB can work closely with a range of organizations to advance its institutional policy interests and to connect to the community without signing on to the full political agenda of non-academic groups and without endorsing electoral candidates.

Similarly, this referendum does not oppose the rights of business groups such as the Partnership and the Business Council to lobby for reducing government jobs or public employees’ benefits, or for protecting millionaires from taxes, or for any other political position.  The point is simply that these groups should not use public university resources or UB’s name and prestige to promote external private political interests.


[1] Professor and William J. Magavern Fellow, University at Buffalo Law School (for identification only).

[2] Anthony York, Education Leaders Chamber of Commerce Board to Protest Whitman Endorsement, PolitiCal Blog, L.A. Times, Sept. 3, 2010 (quoting letter from Yudof to Chamber); see also Anthony York, Resignations Follow California Chamber of Commerce’s Endorsement of Whitman,  L.A. Times, Sept. 5, 2010.

[3] See also Governor’s Office of Employee Relations, Management/Confidentical Handbook, Policy Directives, Ethics in Government, Sept. 10 (2010) (“there must be a cleear separation between their political activities and their duties as State employees”).

[4] Buck Quigley, UB Pays $48K in Dues to Buffalo Niagara Partnership with State Money, Artvoice (blog posting), Oct. 28, 2011.

[5] Introduction by Buffalo Niagara Partnership President and CEO Andrew Rudnick to 2010-11 Annual Report of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, June 28, 2011.

[6] Andrew Rudnick, In Anticipation of Election Day (public email statement by Partnership President and CEO), Oct. 3, 2011, posted on Buffalo Niagara Partnership website

[7] Buck Quigley, UB Pays $48K in Dues to Buffalo Niagara Partnership with State Money, Artvoice (blog posting), Oct. 28, 2011.

[9] Rob Lillpop, Biz Leaders Prepared to Do Battle with Unions, Business Council Capital Business Blog, Dec. 14, 2010.

[10] Editorial, Business Council Endorsements Likely to Further Alienate Unions (Plattsburgh, N.Y.), Press-Republican, Sept. 30, 2010.  This editorial notes that “The council professes to be apolitical — strictly nonpartisan. But, in discussing issues important to the council, it’s impossible to avoid political aspects of the council’s work.”

[11] See 130 S.Ct. 876 (2010).

[12] Statement from Kenneth Adams on Business Council’s Endorsement of Andrew Cuomo for Governor, Oct. 6, 2010.

[14] Andrew Rudnick, 84 Days Till Judgment Day, public email statement from Partnership President and CEO, Aug. 10, 2010.

[15] See for example, Maryland Chamber of Commerce and New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, both of which list State University leaders as board members on their web pages.

[16] U.S. ChamberWatch, The U.S. Chamber of Commerce:  Leading the Charge in Electing a Republican Congress  (Nov. 2010).

[17] Matt Trojan, Yahoo! joins Apple, other Tech Companies, Abandons U.S. Chamber, blog posting, ChamberWatch, Oct. 13, 2011. See also Thomas L. Friedman, The New Sputnik, NYTimes.com, Sept. 26, 2009 (criticizing the U.S. Chamber’s opposition to renewable energy as a major barrier to U.S. technological leadership, stating “All shareholders in America should ask their CEOs why they still belong to the chamber”).

[18] About Us, Business Council of New York State (visited Nov. 11, 2011).

[19] Buffalo Niagara Partnership website, Top Issues (last visited Nov. 20, 2011).

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