If at first you are unsuccessful, threaten multi-million dollar retaliation.
That’s what Ballot Box Democracy has done in California, where the state’s largest local SEIU just announced plans to spend up to $ 24 million on a series of economically unworkable initiatives. targeting state hospitals if they do not engage in a “conversation” about organizing their workforce.
This kind of behavior was once called extortion; in California, they just call it election law. It is time to end it.
The content of these two SEIU initiatives is so outrageous that they would be comical if the union weren’t so serious.
One of the initiatives would set a hard limit on what hospitals can pay their CEOs – not more than the President of the United States.
The other initiative, in a move that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro would surely appreciate, sets arbitrary limits on the prices that hospitals can charge.
Labor is hoping the threat of either of these initiatives being passed is serious enough that hospitals will capitulate without a fight and come to the negotiating table. The strategy is particularly cynical because it relies on spending millions of dollars to convince California voters that these disastrous initiatives are good and necessary ideas.
This “give me what I want, otherwise” playground posture is permitted by the laws of California and 23 other states that bypass representative democracy and give voters direct access to the legislative process. (There are thousands of such laws at the city and county level, according to the Initiative & Referendum Institute.)
The theory behind this form of direct democracy seems reasonable – to empower the “people” to make state decisions in their own hands. In practice, these laws present the same danger to political minorities that James Madison first worried about when writing the Federalist Papers.
Because the ballot boxes have been used for both liberal and conservative legislative purposes, these laws are preserved by an unusual coalition of left and right groups. But bipartisan support has done little to prevent their abuse.
More recently, in the small town of SeaTac, Washington, unions and labor groups spent more than $ 1.4 million to secure passage of an initiative that sets draconian wage and benefit standards that can be lifted under a collective agreement. A similar initiative was adopted last year in Long Beach, where unions backed a transparent attempt to push non-union hotels to the bargaining table.
Unions invariably claim that their efforts are only aimed at helping workers, contrary to what the aforementioned collective bargaining waivers might suggest. But sometimes they go too far and the curtain is drawn on this masquerade.
Witness speculation from the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council this fall about imposing a minimum wage of $ 10 on the February special ballot to replace former mayor Bob Filner.
Remember, the California legislature had just passed a law to raise the state’s minimum wage to $ 10 an hour, so the San Diego initiative would have had no practical political impact. Instead, the only reason to put it on the ballot was the expected increase in Democratic turnout for a candidate endorsed by the workers in an election where the incumbent Democrat had created a difficult environment for the party.
Supporters of the wage hike are now considering voting initiatives for 2014 in states where the Senate race is expected to be tight, with organizers on the ground to implement the strategy. But increasing the participation of a particular party is not the purpose of the ballot box; neither uses it as a bargaining chip for organized labor. Unfortunately, this is the political reality that our initiative laws have created.
James Madison was not comfortable with direct democracy. It’s time we remembered the reasons why.
Michael Saltsman is Research Director at the Employment Policies Institute.