The union movement was heavily involved in campaigns over ballot initiatives in the 2012 elections, and labor’s post-election scorecard showed good results. By far, the biggest win for labor was in California, where a series of tax increases (mostly on the wealthy) passed, preventing $6 billion worth of cuts to education and public services.
California Federation of Teachers President Josh Pechthalt pointed out in a statement that “the people have spoken: the best way to build a better education system is to properly fund it by asking those who can most afford it, the wealthy, to pay their fair share in taxes.”
California thus follows the example set by Oregon in early 2010: if the issue is successfully framed and accompanied by effective organizing, the public is willing to vote to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund essential public services.
Unions were also able to beat back a budget bill in California that would have allowed the governor to unilaterally cut expenditures, and soundly defeated Prop 32, which would have severely limited their ability to engage in politics by banning paycheck deductions to support political action funds. This measure was packaged in an especially deceitful way, worded so that it appeared to apply equally to unions and corporations – aside from the fact that billionaires have no need for a paycheck deduction when they want to contribute to a campaign. But a very broad labor alliance was able to cut through the fog and convince California voters to reject this anti-union plan.
In several other states, unions were able to score key gains. In Idaho, the Idaho Education Association (the state’s largest education union) soundly defeated Props 1, 2, and 3, which would have eliminated teacher tenure, instituted merit pay, and made the completion of (often for-profit) online coursework mandatory for Idaho students in order to graduate from high school. Wealthy education “reformers” from around the country spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attempt to get the propositions passed. In South Dakota, voters soundly defeated a similar bill that would have eliminated teacher tenure. But pro-public-education forces suffered a losses on charter schools in votes in Georgia and Washington State.
In Michigan, proposals to enshrine collective bargaining into the state constitution and to expand collective bargaining to homecare workers failed. The former may have been labor’s biggest loss this year on the initiative front, as it represented an effort to go beyond the defensive fights over union rights that have flared in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere. However, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s widely despised emergency manager law, which allows him to autocratically appoint managers that run roughshod over local democracy (and union contracts), was defeated by a close margin at the ballot box. A coalition of unions led by American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 25 had mobilized to defeat the bill.
In Oregon, unions mobilized to defeat an initiative that would have eliminated inheritance taxes, and were successful. They also were able to eliminate a corporate tax loophole to provide $60 million more annually to public schools.
In Alabama, a sneaky constitutional amendment that could have potentially lead to the elimination of the constitutional guarantee to a right to a public education was defeated after the Alabama Education Association and black political leaders mobilized opposition. An amendment that further restricts unions’ ability to organize, however, passed.
Overall, labor’s referendum results in 2012 left the movement in a stronger position than before. With another year of national and state fights over budgetary austerity already taking shape, the union movement will need all the additional muscle it can muster.
An earlier version of this article appeared on The Nation’s website.