Half-a-Loaf: The Hard Lessons of Elections

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans  As we peel more layers off the onion of the recent election, there’s more good news and more bad, but there are also refresher courses that remind us of lessons we’ve painfully won, but are forced into detention to review yet again.  The hardest is often the tough lesson of elections:  it is virtually impossible to win a full loaf, not because it’s not the right loaf to win, but because it exposes to many slices for the opposition to carve away in order to beat you.

Of the three union-backed referenda in Michigan that announced a labor pushback against “Wisconsinitis,” two failed badly, while one succeeded, as we discussed yesterday.  The one voters rejected handily was the attempt to protect collective bargaining in the constitution.  Opponents argued that such a move would repeal 170 existing laws, confusing the voters, but frankly voters, right and left, are very cautious and conservative everywhere when it comes to messing with their constitutions, which poses an inherent risk to anything but the simplest, slamdunk propositions.

As painfully, SEIU lost its efforts to restore collective bargaining rights for home health care workers, and seems to have been beat by opponents’ arguments about cost.  Without knowing more at this moment in order to be more certain, it’s hard to believe that timing may not have been an issue given the media buzz kill from the rightwing on the costs of Obamacare, rising health premiums, and the still heavy weight of the recession in Michigan.  This is defeat is very worrisome though.  The high stakes of elections are that you can win big and lose big.  Beating homecare workers in Michigan may embolden the right to go after such workers elsewhere, which many observers are now sensing may be in the offing, which would be not only unjust, but tragic for these lower wage, critical workers.

Yesterday I was begging for more living wage measures to be on the ballot locally and statewide.  Later in the day I caught up with the news that in fact there is already strong proof for the pudding for such a strategy.  Several measures in California won decidedly in Long Beach and San Jose, after a long hiatus in recent years.  This should finally set the stage for Los Angeles, which we have argued was essential in recent years, though a difficult political piece of engineering, and perhaps San Diego and Sacramento as well.

After many years of battling, it was great news to see that voters in Albuquerque approved a living wage measure in that city.   The community organization, OLE (formerly New Mexico ACORN) led this effort to victory, continuing steadfastly a campaign it has waged consistently over the last decade.  Importantly, it did so by scaling back the wage number in order to finally win, and going with the proven experience in other elections that voters will approve a dollar over the federal level with an automatic increase on inflation or future federal increases, because they think it is unreasonable and not the jobs-killer argued by opponents and business.   Ole!

Bob King, president of the UAW, was incredulous speaking to Steven Greenhouse of the Times about the Michigan results on collective bargaining because 55% of the voters or better had expressed support for collective bargaining but still voted against the constitutional measure.  Bob probably wasn’t really that surprised.  As the membership of unions falls to single digits the experience with collective bargaining becomes similarly meager, making voters, and even workers, more confused about whether it’s a good thing or a dangerous unknown.

Albuquerque and others teach us again and again, people want to do the right thing, but they are afraid of doing too much, so sometimes they vote for the devil they know, rather than the devil they don’t know.  We are going to have to fill our stomachs with one slice at a time until we can work out way up to the fuller loaf that we deserve, but if we learn our lessons again, people and organizations are proving it can be done.