Voters weigh in on workers rights around the nation


Workers rights were on the line this election day. Ballot measures in half a dozen states touched on collective bargaining rights, card check unionization, and union political contributions. This also was the year more labor organizations took stands on same sex marriage and decriminalization of marijuana.


Collective bargaining rights

COLLECTIVE BARGAINING IN MICHIGAN: Michigan in particular was a ballot measure battleground this year, with three union-sponsored ballot proposals on collective bargaining rights: By a 58 to 42 percent margin, voters turned down Proposal 2, a proposed amendment to the state constitution to declare that public and private employees have the right to organize and bargain collectively. The amendment would have pre-empted laws limiting collective bargaining, like so-called “right-to-work” and “paycheck protection” laws. Unions worked hard to put Proposal 2 on the ballot, and spent over $21 million dollars to galvanize support and turn out the vote, but were outspent by business groups and billionaires like casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and the family of Amway founder Richard DeVos.  Also defeated was Proposal 4, which would have given collective bargaining rights to state-paid in-home care workers. But labor did succeed in repealing the state’s anti-union emergency manager law, which authorizes the governor to put appointees in charge of local governments that are in fiscal distress, with the power to modify or terminate union contracts.

BANNING CARD-CHECK IN ALABAMA: Alabamans voted 2-to-1 to approve an amendment to the state constitution declaring that “the right of individuals to vote for public office, public votes on referenda, or votes of employee representation by secret ballot is fundamental.” But then, state law already mandated secret ballots for public office; the intent of this deviously worded amendment was to bar the “card check” method of union recognition. Under card check, legal under the National Labor Relations Act since 1935, an employer may recognize a union without an election if a majority of workers have signed cards asking for it. Arizona, Utah, South Dakota and South Carolina passed similar laws in 2010, which are being challenged in court as illegal pre-emptions of the federal law.

PAYCHECK PROTECTION IN CALIFORNIA: California unions had to re-fight a “paycheck protection” ballot measure aimed at limiting union political fundraising. In 1998 and 2005, voters rejected similar measures, which would “protect” employees from having the right to voluntarily contribute to union political action funds via employer payroll deduction. This year’s measure, Proposition 32, was disguised as a ban on corporate and union contributions to state and local candidates, but its key feature was a ban on automatic deductions of union members wages to be used for politics. Voters didn’t fall for it, and rejected it by 56 to 44 percent.


Teacher bashing

A slew of measures from the corporate education reform playbook were on state ballots:

  • In what the Idaho Statesman newspaper called “a stunning rebuke” to the state’s Republican governor, Idaho voters turned back a legislative overhaul of public education. The legislature passed the laws, but teachers unions gathered signatures to refer them to voters in hopes of overturning them. Proposition 1 would have put teachers on year-to-year contracts, barred early retirement incentives, and stripped them of the right to collectively bargain anything but wages. Proposition 2 would have mandated teacher performance pay based on test scores. And Proposition 3 would have authorized public charter high schools and promised hand-held computers for students. None of the laws came even close, with “no” votes ranging from to 57 to 66 percent.
  • An even higher portion — 68 percent — of South Dakota voters repealed a law that would have set up performance-based teacher bonuses, ended teacher tenure and granted scholarships to education majors in math and science.
  • But Washington voters, in their third time voting on the issue, narrowly passed a union-opposed measure authorizing the establishment of 40 public charter schools over the next five years. And by a 2-to-1 margin Georgia passed a constitutional amendment to allow the state to set up charter schools.


Other employment related questions on state and local ballots:

  • Oklahoma voters passed by a 3-to-2 margin a legislative referral barring race-based affirmative action in state and local employment and contracting.
  • Voters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and San Jose, California, overwhelmingly approved raising the minimum wage. The Albuquerque measure raises it from $7.50 to $8.50 in 2013, mandates future increases based on inflation, and gives tipped workers a raise to 45 percent of the regular minimum wage in 2013 and 60 percent in 2014. The San Jose measure raises it from the state’s $8.00 to $10.00 an hour.
  • Long Beach, California, voters approved a local law requiring hotels with more than 100 rooms to pay workers at least $13 an hour, with annual raises of 2 percent and a minimum of five paid days off per year for full-time workers.


Tax fairness

Organized labor has been a consistent advocate for fair and adequate taxation, and this year was no exception:

  • Facing dueling tax measures, California voters approved union-backed referral raising income taxes on those with more than $250,000 income and increasing the state sales tax by 0.25 percent. Voters rejected the other measure, funded by the daughter and son of Berkshire Hathaway billionaire Charles Munger, which would have raised income taxes on a sliding scale, mostly on those earning more than $200,000.
  • Oregon voters rejected a measure phasing out the state’s estate tax on millionaire estates, and ended the “corporate kicker,” an unusual corporate income tax refund that is triggered in years when revenues exceed projections (The former was sponsored by former Republican party chair Kevin Mannix, while the latter was placed on the ballot by the union-backed coalition Our Oregon.)
  • Washington voters extended an existing law requiring legislative supermajorities for tax increases, and Michigan voters approved a similar supermajority requirement for the first time.


Social issues

Labor organizations also took sides this year in an array of ballot measures that might seem at first glance to be distant from the traditional focus on worker rights, wages and working conditions:

  • Labor unions came out in favor of marriage equality in four states this year. In Maine, Maryland, and Washington, voters approved ballot measures legalizing same sex marriage which were backed by the AFL-CIO and other labor organizations. And in Minnesota, the state AFL-CIO, AFSCME Council 5, SEIU State Council, and Minnesota Federation of Teachers helped defeat a state constitutional amendment that would bar same sex marriage.
  • Marijuana measures had union support in Washington and Oregon. Oregon’s Measure 80, endorsed by the state’s largest private sector union, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, fell short 45 percent to 55 percent. But Washington’s Initiative 592 passed, supported by the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. It licenses and regulates marijuana production, distribution, and possession for persons over 21, removes penalties for personal use and possession of up to an ounce, imposes a 25 percent sales tax on marijuana, and sets a standard for driving under the influence.
  • California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, endorsed measures replacing the death penalty with life sentences; and requiring labeling of genetically engineered food, but both measures failed at the polls.



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