Are California’s Two Bites at the Wage Increase Initiatives Good Tactics?

Citizen Wealth Financial Justice
Demonstrators take part in a protest to demand higher wages for fast-food workers outside McDonald's in Los Angeles, California May 15, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Demonstrators take part in a protest to demand higher wages for fast-food workers outside McDonald’s in Los Angeles, California May 15, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Shreveport     The rush to raise wages sometimes seems feast or famine. While “Fight for $15” was trying to launch another publicity strike at McDonald’s, the only real notice of the workers’ rallies was a question their march in Milwaukee prompted from Fox Business News to the Republican debaters. New York State’s Governor Andrew Cuomo seized all of the big headlines announcing that he was going to raise the starting wage for all New York State public employees to $15 per hour. Meanwhile in the rest of the country, we’re just living the dream of almost any raise in the minimum wage, especially where there is no possibility of a ballot initiative or legislative relief.

Talk about a bounty – in California, unions are promoting two different statewide ballot initiatives that would raise wages to $15 per hour statewide. The Los Angeles Times pitched the story as another schism within the Service Employees International Union because the initiatives are being boosted by two different local unions and their supporters. The spokespeople for both petition drives were reasonable and talked about reconciling their efforts, though the initiative supported by the large and often controversial healthcare union, SEIU-United Healthcare West says it has already exceeded the required signatures and the other effort being announced by SEIU Local 1021 and the SEIU California State Council seems to be just beginning.

There are substantial differences between the proposals. SEIU-UHW’s measure is a straight-up proposal to get to $15 per hour statewide. The other proposal gets to $15 for sure but also increases paid sick leave and extends sick leave coverage to workers previously excluded. Some professors and other experts quoted in the article think two initiatives will doom the effort. Is that true or could this even be good tactics for a victory?

In the recent election in Tacoma, Washington two measures were on the ballot for city voters in the shadow of the victory earlier in Seattle. One would have raised wages in the city to $15 per hour and the other would have gone to $12 per hour. The $12 measure won, and the $15 lost. A measure in Portland, Maine to go to $15 per hour also went down to defeat. My point: none of this is a sure thing.

Consider also that in states like Arkansas, Missouri, and many others are on the list, a statewide ballot initiative can be disqualified from the ballot if it arguably includes two different subjects, because legislators and courts have ruled the measures are too confusing to the voters and the intent of their votes are too muddled. California may be different, but there is no way that wages and sick leave are the same, and common sense and a lot of experience with statewide referenda will teach that keeping it simple is critical to victory, so larding a measure up, no matter how meritorious the effort, endangers any passage.

But, are the potshoters right that two measures would mean defeat or is this just more blah-blah-blah about internecine conflict in the labor movement? Tacoma recently and other elections historically on initiatives would tend to argue that well run and well financed campaigns will in fact encourage voters to support a measure rather than vote “no,” but they will vote for the most moderate seeming measure rather than taking a chance on going too far. Perhaps a split among progressive voters trying to go for more and a mobilized opposition could weigh down both issues, but there is no runoff on referenda, it’s first past the post, so at the least any experienced political worker or bettor knows to put their money on the straight $15 not the $15 plus measure as the one that lead the other. The same is actually true in union elections. No union ever likes another union on the ballot, but when two or more unions are on the ballot, one of the unions will win, not the “no” votes.

Unfortunately, it seems that in California where chances of winning $15 might be best, two measures were probably not good tactics in any deliberate strategic sense, so one may have to step aside or step back, and that is likely the newcomer trying for the feast of wage increases and sick leave in one big gulp.