Business interests foil Worker Bill of Rights
Lois Danks
volume:  
volume 36
issue 6
December 2015

A volunteer for the Worker Bill of Rights campaign distributes flyers calling for desperately needed raises in Spokane. Photo: Courtesy of Sagi Bresgal

Spokane, Wash., the second largest city in the state, saw a fight this year for a first-in-the-nation initiative guaranteeing basic worker rights. Despite being outspent by 12-to-1, the Worker Bill of Rights gained almost 17,000 votes (36 percent) in the Nov. 3 election. Organizers vow to get the measure before voters again.

A community-labor coalition, Envision Spokane, was the force behind the effort. Proposition 1 provided for a “family self-sufficiency” wage, equal pay for equal work, and protection against wrongful firing. In addition, it stated that corporations would not be deemed to be “persons” with the legal right to challenge the measure if it were passed.

The safeguards in the measure are usually available only to workers covered by union contracts or civil service rules. With massive attacks growing against U.S. unions, passing measures such as this could be an exciting and creative step toward increased security for all workers.

Raising the bar. Going far beyond the fight for a $15 minimum wage, Proposition 1 called for a wage calculated on the actual amount needed by a single parent and one child for self-sufficiency, including childcare, transportation, and savings for emergencies. This was estimated to be from $17 to $25 an hour. It would be tied to inflation and be required of any business with more than 150 employees, including franchises.

The Worker Bill of Rights also required equal pay for equal work. It not only included gender, but sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, familial status, race, ethnicity, national origin, citizenship, economic class, religion, age, and disability. This cohesive approach addresses the many factors that increase poverty among the oppressed.

The bill’s third plank was freedom from unjust firing — currently a legal right in only one state. Most workers have no recourse when a boss fires them for whatever reason or no reason. The Spokane measure required employers with more than 10 workers to only terminate employees for illegal activity or demonstrated work performance problems. Bosses were mandated to give employees warnings and chances to improve, and to allow workers to present their opposition to the termination. A boss would have to prove economic need in order to conduct layoffs. These protections would be a huge boon to workers organizing unions.

The measure would have been even stronger if the wage increase were immediate instead of phased in over three years. In addition, enforcement relied on suits by aggrieved workers, rather than requiring the city to enforce these rights. Undoubtedly the best enforcer would be by unions defending their members, backed up by the power of collective action.

Fierce opposition. Envision Spokane started out with a 2013 Community Bill of Rights that addressed environmental and development concerns, receiving support from CELDF (Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund). This measure was kept from voters by a lawsuit filed by County Commissioners and business groups. It still has not gone to court.

This time around, business groups including the Spokane Home Builders Association, city government, and the Spokesman-Review newspaper fought the measure using incitements against outside agitators and scare tactics claiming inevitable job losses and destruction of small businesses. Spokane Mayor David Condon sued to block the measure but failed to stop the legally filed petition from appearing on the ballot. In a last ditch attempt, the city council added two “advisory” funding questions to alarm voters about increased taxes or program cuts if Prop. 1 passed.

Building from the grass roots. Doorbelling, leafleting, phone-banking and personal contacts were the heart of the campaign. Nine unions endorsed, including the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1439, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Locals 73 and 77, Spokane Education Association, Industrial Workers of the World, Spokane Regional Labor Council, and Washington/Idaho Building and Construction Trades Council.

According to Kai Huschke, campaign coordinator and Washington organizer for CELDF, “Everyone from high school students to state employees to veterans to union members to retired librarians” worked to get Prop. 1 passed. He says, “This work is going at the heart of the inequity and injustice perpetuated by the corporate state. Any advancement in dismantling that structure is a victory and cause to celebrate even if it doesn’t pass this time.” Huschke says the movement will regroup and be back.

Worker Bill of Rights initiatives are a proactive way to expand rights, boost union organizing, and stop corporations from overruling the people. Initiatives that bring together grass-roots activists, unions, environmentalists, and low-wage workers show how communities can fight everything from large development to environmental harm and police abuse.

The initiative in Spokane moves the battle lines forward and increases the pressure on the profit system — and that’s a good thing! For more information, visit envisionspokane.org/initiative.

Also see:

Voters in Tacoma, Wash., pass $12 minimum wage

Unions must join forces to defeat anti-labor lawsuit before US Supreme Court

Labor Weather Report

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