July 20, 2007 Volume 108 Number 14

Unions plan next year's ballot measure strategy

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Several Oregon labor organizations are already planning ballot measure strategy for the November 2008 election.

In part, that’s because they don’t have a choice: Frequent union foe Bill Sizemore, despite a 2002 jury finding of fraud and racketeering, is more active than he’s been for years. But unions will also consider a proactive strategy — what initiatives can organized labor help get on the ballot to move the agenda forward for working people?

On July 10, the Oregon AFL-CIO and several of the state’s larger, more politically active unions (including Change to Win’s Service Employees International Union) met with a handful of big progressive groups to confer over ballot measure plans. Our Oregon, a group that’s tracking ballot measure activity, reported that Sizemore has been busy circulating seven measures. His ballot initiative company, Democracy Direct, is also circulating three crime-related ballot measures sponsored by 2002 Republican gubernatorial nominee Kevin Mannix, plus two measures sponsored by Russ Walker, vice chairman of the Oregon Republican Party.

On June 26, Sizemore turned in to the secretary of state’s office about 120,000 signatures each on two of his measures. One would create an unlimited state income tax deduction for federal personal income taxes paid; the other would prohibit teaching public school students in a language other than English for more than two years.

Other actively circulating Sizemore measures include:

  • Banning political candidate contributions by public employee unions — such contributions would be prosecuted as felony bribery;
  • Requiring that public school teacher pay raises and job security be based on performance, not seniority;
  • Prohibiting public employers from facilitating union dues payments to public employee unions that make political contributions;
  • Requiring that judges not be labeled “incumbent” on the ballot if they were appointed; and
  • Allowing property owners to make up to $35,000 of improvements without having to obtain a building permit.

A 2000 union lawsuit revealed that Sizemore’s ballot measures were motivated in part by a desire to tie up union money. Many of the current crop of proposals seem aimed to do that as well. Voters have rejected several of them before, like the federal tax deduction measure, which went down 55-45 percent in 2000. But getting them back on the ballot will push unions to spend money again to defeat them.

“Voters don’t like his ideas, as a rule,” said Patty Wentz, Our Oregon communications director (and former Oregon AFL-CIO communications director.) “They reject his proposals. But it’s the only business at which he’s ever been successful.”

In January, Sizemore told The Oregonian that 2008 will be the most interesting initiative year in 20 years.

“Bill Sizemore is back in action, and that can only mean bad things for Oregonians,” said Arthur Towers, political director of SEIU Local 503. “Working families have a lot to be concerned about with the ballot.”

For its part, Local 503 is weighing whether to go forward with a ballot measure to prevent hospital price gouging of the uninsured. A bill to require hospitals to charge uninsured patients no more than their best rate to insurers failed to pass the Legislature this year. So SEIU filed it as an initiative the day before the Legislature adjourned. It hasn’t yet been approved to circulate. The measure’s chief petitioner is Verna Porter, president of Oregon Alliance for Retired Americans, a union retirees group affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

Another measure that might get union support was filed in April by Labor Commissioner Dan Gardner and State Rep. Diane Rosenbaum, a longtime union political leader. Their measure would require overtime pay after eight hours of work, except in workplaces that have an alternative regular 40-hour-a-week schedule, like four 10-hour days a week. Gardner said he planned to test the waters in the coming weeks to see if there is organizational support for getting the measure on the ballot.

And the Oregon AFL-CIO is considering four ideas that could be filed as ballot initiatives:

  • A declaration that corporations are not people. That may sound like declaring that the moon isn’t made of green cheese, except that courts have ruled corporations are people in the sense of having rights like free speech and so forth. “It’d be really something to see the opposing campaign try to convince people to go against their gut instinct on that one,” said Oregon AFL-CIO Campaign/Political Director Duke Shepard.
  • Protecting the minimum wage. Oregon voters passed a 2002 initiative that increases the minimum wage annually for inflation, but since then, some business groups have tried to get the Legislature to create a sub-minimum wage for certain kinds of workers, like tipped employees. They’d be stopped in their tracks by a measure to require that any changes to the minimum wage law get a three-fifths vote in the Legislature. And that would give the right-wing a taste of their own “super-majority” medicine, Shepard said, referring to current super-majority requirements that hamstring any legislative proposals to raise revenue.
  • Defending the freedom to negotiate. From time to time, union opponents like Sizemore get behind ballot measures to make Oregon a so-called “right-to-work” state, where it would be illegal for employers sign a union contract requiring employees to pay union dues to maintain employment. Of the 22 states that have such a law, none has a strong labor movement. To halt any future efforts to make Oregon a right-to-work state, the Oregon AFL-CIO is considering a constitutional amendment to say that the subjects of collective bargaining can’t be limited in that way.
  • Stopping unemployment insurance from being used for anything else. This would be a way to prevent the return of Jobs Plus. Jobs Plus, a project dear to the heart of Dick Wendt — Sizemore’s latest financial backer — was a pilot program that gave unemployment insurance funds to employers who hired unemployed people. Unions called it corporate welfare — and an outrageous misuse of funds intended for workers. The program died in June 2005 after the Legislature failed to reauthorize it. But Wendt would like to see it return.