Using Ballot Initiatives to Build Power: Two Different Approaches

Mark Vorpahl

In numerous states, counties and cities, union and community organizers are considering ballot initiatives for November. Whether they are facing a fight against corporate-backed initiatives that will bleed workers while gorging big business, or considering their own initiatives that will benefit the 99%, activists and labor leaders are weighing how to use the election season to defend and help the grass roots.

How ballot campaigns are conducted reflects the attitude of their backers regarding what needs to be done to transform the political climate in favor of workers’ needs. If the backers believe it is possible to turn around the corporate agenda by working within the political system without building the grass-roots power to challenge it, their approach will reflect this by prioritizing their connections with politicians.

On the other hand, if the backers have concluded that it will take a massive social movement to win pro-worker reforms by the ballot, as well as independently organized grass-roots strength to change the political climate, then their approach to ballot initiative campaigns will emphasize building popular support.

An instructive comparison between these approaches is the campaign for a $15 minimum wage in Seattle and the batch of potential initiatives under the title “Act Now for a Healthy Oregon” (ANHO) put forward by Service Employees International Union.

What Happened to Healthy Oregon?

ANHO included measures that would compel hospitals to publicly state their quality ratings as well as have the cost for medical procedures out in the open so that patients could compare prices. Also included was a measure to limit the pay of Healthcare CEOs to no more than 15 times the wage of their lowest pay employees.

While there is no current social movement around such measures, it could be argued that because these bills addressed some of the most egregious ways the healthcare system hurts the 99%, they could serve as a spark.

This year in Oregon, it is all the more important that unions stick up for all workers because of the threat of a corporate-backed initiative — the grossly misnamed “Public Employee Choice Act.” This bill would severely weaken public workers’ collective bargaining rights. If Labor is to fight such anti-worker attacks, the unions need to put forward a fight that the broad majority can get behind. As a result workers will learn that any attack on collective bargaining rights is also an attack on the 99%.

However, building this broad fight back is no longer a possibility in 2014 as far as ANHO goes. In a letter sent to SEIU members on February 25, it was announced that this Act was being pulled.

“Last week, our union reached an historic agreement about the future of healthcare in Oregon. With the leadership of Oregon Governor Kitzhaber and the impetus of our Act Now for a Healthy Oregon ballot measures, the CEOs of the largest health systems in Oregon agreed to a series of meetings about how front line caregivers can be part of the solutions we need to see in healthcare.”

In addition, in a follow up letter it was announced:

“Today, I’m happy to report that we can claim a victory for working families across Oregon. Governor Kitzhaber alongside SEIU and a coalition of other union leaders were able to fight back anti-worker ballot initiatives that posed serious threats to our union and workers’ wages, benefits, and safe working conditions.

“After a series of discussions with the Governor and our coalition, backers behind anti-worker measure have agreed to pull their ballot initiatives. In exchange for pulling their initiatives, we are holding back on a slate of revenue-generating proposals that had initially qualified for the signature gathering.”

No doubt, the dropping of the “Public Employee Choice Act” is a huge relief for the unions. Just by this alone it could be argued that the political horse-trading between its backers and SEIU was justified.

However, it will likely be back next election year. SEIU bought some time with this maneuver, but the question of how to build the strength to proactively and decisively ward off such attacks remains.

It is unclear what gains, if any, will be won by the series of meetings between healthcare CEOs and healthcare union representatives that was arranged by Governor Kitzhaber in exchange for dropping ANHO. Such attempts at partnership with corporate interests, however, are generally as effective as truces between predator and prey — they don’t last long and produce results that inspire no one because of their concessions to corporate wolfs.

It appears that the priorities of those behind ANHO were to have a ballot proposal to get a seat at the table with the corporate heads and their politicians, as well as head off the “Public Employee Choice Act.” They have been successful at this — for now.

Playing a subordinate role in this arrangement was the need to educate, mobilize, and democratically organize not only SEIU’s membership, but the broader community as well. It is likely that those behind ANHO did not believe it is possible, at this time, to do this. Without it, though, the strength of the unions to make gains for workers on a political scale will continue to diminish.

Seattle’s Campaign for $15

In Seattle, Washington we are witnessing a very different dynamic in the campaign to win a $15 minimum wage for the city. Mayor Ed Murry, once it became clear the wide support this measure has, announced he was in favor of it as well and has set up a committee to put together an executive order for it.

Rather than giving Mayor Murray a blank check, newly elected City Council representative Kshama Sawant, who ran as a member of Socialist Alternative and built her campaign to a large degree by advocating for a $15 minimum wage, has warned of possible concessions coming from the Mayor’s committee.

If the Mayor’s proposal does not fulfill the hope that Seattle’s workers have invested in the demand for a $15 minimum wage, those in “$15 Now“, who support Sawant and have significant union endorsements, have pledged to put the issue to Seattle voters. Neighborhood committees have already been organized to gather signatures to put it on the ballot if necessary.

In addition, they are continuing to keep the heat on by mobilizing in the streets and organizing in the community. If it had not been for this activity, Mayor Murray never would have been compelled to support $15 per hour in the first place. In order to get the raise that Seattle workers’ deserve, either by executive order or by vote, its backers know that it is necessary to continue to educate, agitate, organize and mobilize the 99%.

To strengthen the fight for $15 and help assure it has the best possible chance of success, members of “$15 Now” and, most importantly, the unions and allied community groups need to create a united, mutually agreed upon campaign to build support for jump-starting the $15 an hour minimum wage campaign. Without this type of broad-based coalition the movement for $15 an hour could all too easily fall into a rut with different groups weakening their potential united strength by each following their own separate agenda. If Mayor Murray’s executive order dissatisfies more than it provides, it will be all the more urgently necessary that this process of building the broadest most active support be pursued.


Whereas there was no public campaign for ANHO, reaching out to the broad majority of working people to build unity in action among the various politically active organizations that support $15 can be the motor force for the collective fight for $15. The backers of ANHO used it as leverage to pressure the 1% and their representatives. In Seattle the success of the campaign for $15 depends on uniting all the various groups who support $15 and, in a unified manner, reaching out to the 99% for support.

In order to evaluate the usefulness of these two different approaches, we need to ask which way is better for preparing the grass roots to reverse corporate greed and begin winning some real victories for workers? Which is most likely to win in a way that can engage and inspire our communities? Which approach raises awareness among more people of their common interests? Which builds the broadest and strongest unity among the 99%? And what approach can build greater confidence among workers to speak out for other rights as well as the issue at hand?

In asking these questions, the answer is obvious.



Mark Vorpahl is a unionist and anti-war activist and writer for Workers Action. He may be reached at