California Labor Activists Get Schooled on Stopping the Special Exemptions Act

Our power is in people. We can beat the other side by getting people in the streets and getting them to talk about what we really believe in.

This quote from Mike Casey, president of UNITE HERE Local 2, struck a chord with me this weekend as I participated in California Labor Federation’s 2012 Campaign School in Burlingame, just one of more than a dozen Campaign School trainings going on around the state this month. Nearly 500 union and progressive activists attended a Campaign School this week alone, and by the end of the month, as many as 2,000 or more volunteer activists will have participated in the same intensive and exciting training, as part of California Labor’s coordinated grassroots effort to Stop the Special Exemptions Act on the November ballot.

Throughout the course of the day, I spoke with electrical workers, teachers, engineers, librarians, young leaders and retirees. But that does not even begin to cover the variety of workers who attended Campaign School, representing the diversity of our grassroots labor movement, all of whom are 110% dedicated to protecting our state’s middle class by defeating this deceptive anti-union measure. Not only did I witness the energy, passion and eagerness to hit the streets get the truth out to Californians about the Special Exemptions Act, I was also awed by working people’s already solid and confident foundation and steadfast commitment.

Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, kicked off the day thanking us for waking up bright and early on a Saturday and motivating us for a day of preparing our campaign to defeat this intentionally confusing ballot measure. Corporate special interests are claiming it’s about “stopping special interest money”, but actually the measure contains special exemptions for corporate CEOs, Wall Street hedge funds, SuperPACs and the rest of the 1% so they can spend unlimited amounts to buy our elections —  while eliminating the voice of workers.

As California Labor Federation Communications Director Steve Smith noted in his presentation to the group:

Every single Californian needs to be concerned, because they are trying to write out the middle class. This measure is part of a one-two punch — the first punch is to get us out of the way, get us out of politics, and silence our voice. The second punch is when they come after everything we’ve fought so hard for- retirement security, prevailing wage and project agreements, even our right to have a union at all.

Throughout the action-packed day, we learned how the anti-union backers think they can trick people into voting for this measure – and we also learned how we can stop them by spreading the truth about this deceptive measure to our co-workers, friends, family and neighbors. We also went over the nuts and bolts of recruiting and organizing the same sort of volunteer army that led us to victory over the deep pockets of Meg “Wall Street” Whitman in 2010. 

Kristina Martinez, a young worker from IBEW Local 6, told me that she gave up her Saturday because she comes from a family of labor activists and she doesn’t want to be the last generation of organized labor. Instead, she wants to be part of “fighting for what her forbearers fought for- and won.”

Others told me they were here to save the living wage and because they valued what their union had already done for them, their families, their communities and their coworkers. Jerry Reed, a teacher and member of AFT local 1481, felt particularly thankful for his union’s help when he blew out his bicep tendon on the job and was out for nine months: 

If hadn’t been for disability insurance, which paid for 50 percent of my pay, and if it hadn’t been for me joining the union’s sick leave bank to keep me at my normal salary for the rest of the year as I did physical rehab — my family and I would have been on the street.

While the Lincoln Club of Orange County and the other millionaire anti-union backers of this initiative can write massive checks to support their campaign (which is ironic in itself, since they purportedly want to stop this exact practice), we, as workers, know that our power is in grassroots organizing.  We fine-tuned our skills in workshops about message training, volunteer recruitment and organizing worksites. One of the facilitators, Tina Acree, a member of AFSCME Local 829, pointed out the long-lasting power of grassroots organizing:

It’s amazing what we can do with 1/34 of the money but with the voice and the feet on the street- it makes such a difference that we can win. And we proved that with the last governor’s race. It is about taking working people who don’t necessarily have a lot of time- since a lot of our members work two jobs just to make ends meet and have to juggle that with taking care of their kids since they can’t afford day care- and getting them to understand and see how politics has a direct impact on their lives. Once they make that connection and volunteer, you have a member for life. And they will be able to take that to the next person, which builds a movement.

These activists (myself included) and thousands more like us throughout California are ready to use this challenge to reengineer and strengthen our movement so that more of us get involved. Each one of us committed to bringing 10 volunteers to the next mobilization, making at least 200,000 calls and knocking on 50,000 doors to defeat this initiative and ensure that other attacks on workers like this in the future will just be a ripple in the water.

I left Campaign School inspired by this diverse group of labor leaders and member-activists, and intensely motivated to dig in and stop this initiative. I am proud and excited to count myself among the thousands of activists who are spreading the word day and night about the Special Exemptions Act. We aren’t just fighting for our rights, we’re fighting for the middle class and for everything working people value.

Learn more about the Special Exemptions Act.