Ballot Initiatives as Tools for Social Change

ballotNew Orleans   Speaking as a huge believer in ballot initiatives as a difficult, but accessible, way to get around legislative gridlocks and political playmaking in order to win critical public policy changes like minimum wage increases, elimination of taxes on food and medicine, support of generic drugs, and other measures through the years, I found a recent analysis of voters disconcerting.

Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College, and a colleague, Janine Parry of the University of Arkansas, examined voter turnout data from 2014 on ballot referenda in Arkansas. He reported that a decade ago such measures pushed infrequent voters to the polls on highly controversial measures that they had studied like issues addressing same-sex marriage. Rural white voters in the state kicked the mud off their boots, jumped off the tractors, and ran to the polls to vote on that issue! What they found looking at five different measures in 2014, including one to raise the minimum wage in the state, was a horse of a different color. As Barth writes in the Arkansas Times:

“Fewer than half of the voters claimed to know that any initiatives or referendums were on the ballot just a few weeks before the election and nearly two-thirds of the group was unable –when pressed – to recall a single measure correctly. (Only 15 percent of all voters knew that the minimum wage measure, in which Democrats had invested such great hopes, would be on their ballot.) The opportunity to vote on individual ballot measures seemed also to make no impact on voters’ excitement about voting in the election.”

We’ve discussed before how the mishandling of the minimum wage measure by former Senator Mark Pryor as just a “turnout” tool, though victorious, had gutted the popular participation, cutting out unions, community organizations, and others from their normal roles in such an effort. Despite that, Barth’s points are disturbing for those of us who believe that there is hope for our progressive future through such direct democracy.

Dave Regan, a friend and comrade, serving as president of the 100,000 plus member healthcare local in California, United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) for example has argued in a proposal to revitalize the labor movement called “Live Better Together” that unions and progressive allies should maximize the opportunities to win public policy changes through initiated act procedures in the twenty-four states that allow access to the ballot to citizens. Where polling indicates 70% or better support but is stymied in legislative bodies, he advocates aggressive –and expensive – investments in ballot measures to win such changes also creates leverage to revitalize the labor movement.

Having been to that well often over the years through our labor and community efforts, his argument is intriguing, even if perhaps overstated, but Barth and his colleagues analysis is sobering because it reminds us as organizers and progressives not to overestimate the depth of support for the changes we make when our base is inadequately engaged and mobilized and our support, rather than enthusiastic and deep-seated, may be thin and superficial, and therefore equally able to be moved against us as for us. There’s still no substitute or shortcuts for organizing.

 

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Oh, No, Déjà vu All Over Again for SEIU in California

seiu_uhw_colorHouston  If labor doesn’t have enough problems, all we need is another breakout of internecine warfare.

One of the most difficult and divisive disputes in recent decades, since maybe the P9 meatpacking struggle in Minnesota, occurred a half-dozen years ago in Northern California between former SEIU Local 250 renamed SEIU United Healthcare Workers’ West (SEIU-UHW) and the Service Employees International Union.  Northern California being northern California, way too many people out there and elsewhere picked sides, whether they knew the issues or not.  Some claimed it was all about union democracy.  Others said it was a plain and simple internal jurisdictional argument.  All agreed there was ego, ambition, and pride involved and that what should have and could have been resolved, spun dangerously, and expensively, out of control with neither Andy Stern from SEIU nor Sal Rosselli from the local surviving the battle quite intact with both gone once the dust finally settled.  Most people stayed as clear of the mess as they could, and others declared a pox on both their houses.  It wasn’t pretty.

Whether union democracy or union jurisdiction, the trigger to the dispute was an SEIU reorganization plan ordered by the International Executive Board to create one longterm care local union in California just as there was one hospital union, now SEIU-UHW.  Even lopping off this piece left the remaining SEIU-UHW with 80,000 members and still in the top ranks of the US-labor movement as one of the largest locals in the country.  Dave Regan, a leader of SEIU 1199 OH/WV/KY, either drew the straw, or asked for it, to go out there and be the trustee and fight in the trenches to take over the local and implement the order.

My history with Rosselli was strained because my comrade and friend, Mark Splain, from the ACORN family of organizations, had been the trustee of 250 back in an earlier mess, but Rosselli won a bitter, rainy day election, and I developed a working relationship with him and over time a separate peace of sorts.  I liked Dave Regan and had a great working relationship with him both within SEIU and with ACORN.  He was one of the lonely few that joined me on the IEB in the straw poll for John Edwards for example.  We spent time together, and it was good times.  You could count on a small number of fingers who might end up as the international president in his generation and he was right at the point.  Hal Ruddick, who had spent nearly a decade in Local 100 ended up as chief negotiator for SEIU-UHW.   Everything being equal, once there was peace in the valley, I thought they would do a great job for workers there.   After Rosselli had made his bed and split his pieces off, I thought he would do well, sleeping in it.  He’s a talented, creative leader and negotiator, and I was confident that he was one of the few out there that could grow a local from little more than grit and spit, and once it was all over but the shouting, he’s done that, and workers are the better for it to my way of thinking.

Now, there are reports that the healthcare union world of California is on the way to going crazy again, which is a total head scratcher.  The International union under new president, Mary Kay Henry, who incidentally had been the unsuccessful secretary-treasurer candidate with Splain in the last century, not surprisingly re-issued the six-year old order to create one long-term healthcare unit of nursing home and homecare workers in California.  The same order Regan was dispatched as a trustee to enforce when everyone went to the mattresses in Cali.   SEIU wants Local 521 and UHW to make it happen.

Truth is stranger than fiction, and who can sort this out at this point, but the SEIU-UHW board with my brother Dave Regan at its head seems to be trying to organize against the original order that was his mandate.   A thinly veiled resolution was passed by the local.  A not too objective poll was plopped on the members to build their support for standing pat.  I even heard that SEIU-UHW had picketed the International’s headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington.

Once again SEIU-UHW would be a strong, strapping 80,000 members.News reports are trumpeting a great contract just concluded at Kaiser led by Hal Ruddick as executive director running the team.  Agree or disagree, Regan still has a vision for the labor movement nationally and is coming off a jawboning, heavy bluff-and-feint concession from the California hospital association which darned near gives the union organizing neutrality.

Say it’s not so.  This can’t be déjà vu all over again.  Same song, second verse.

We can’t seem to win for losing these days.

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