LOS ANGELES — Everyone is interpreting the Nov. 8 California elections as a vote on the political performance of the state’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is true. However, the vote was more about political program. Public policy was on the ballot, not personalities. The stand the voters took on policy should be the primary guide for political action in 2006.
The landslide 62-38 percent vote against Proposition 76 was the highlight of the election. The state’s Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable wanted a cap on state spending. They wanted to give the governor greater power to cut funds for vital social programs like health and education. The labor movement, the League of Women Voters, civil rights groups and others said no!
When the right wing wins elections by 20 points, the headlines say there is a mandate for their policies. Special legislative sessions are called to transfer billions of dollars to corporate interests. But after last week’s anti-right-wing vote, the media wasn’t talking about mandates — they were urging restraint.
A mandate to reverse the cuts
Back in 1978, California’s infamous “tax-cutting” Prop. 13 was the first wave in the Reagan and Bush assault on social programs. This year’s defeat of Prop. 76 and other right-wing measures, including Prop. 75 to greatly curb unions’ political action, should become the rallying point for turning this tide.
Corporations and Republicans aimed to use the special election to override the growing influence of labor and the people on the state legislature and to impose a right-wing agenda. It was the same kind of assault on democracy as the theft of electoral votes in Florida and Ohio, the redistricting theft of congressional seats in Texas in 2004, and the voter suppression policies instituted by Arizona’s Prop. 200.
Normally candidates are the focal point for turnout in elections. But in this special election there were no candidates for office. The ballot consisted solely of think-tank, legalistically contrived measures. Furthermore, an overwhelming majority of Californians did not want this election. The right wing banked on these facts to insure the low turnout they needed to win. The contest narrowed down to the corporate and right-wing sponsors versus labor and community forces, with the media “arbitrating.” The seriousness of the political stakes was disguised by the action figure posturing of Gov. Schwarzenegger.
The 2005 special election became one of the major class battles in California history. The victory of the labor and community forces was the culmination of over a decade of labor struggles by longshore, hotel, grocery, and home health care workers, Teamsters, janitors, drywallers, teachers, nurses and firefighters all across the state.
Unity of labor and its allies
Despite divisions, the entire labor movement recognized the job that had to be done. They got together with their allies and created the Alliance for a Better California to maximize labor-community unity. This coalition became a powerful structure to carry out that unity. Many millions of voters and the people came to see the election as a contest of corporate versus labor-community power, and they turned out to defend their interests.
Los Angeles County Federation of Labor Secretary Treasurer Martin Ludlow called the campaign an “unprecedented effort by an amazing coalition.” In L.A. County, volunteers put in 2,600 shifts in phone banks, resulting in 200,000 personal conversations. There were 110 speaker-training sessions, which reached out to 50,000 work sites. On Election Day, 4,300 precinct walkers were on the streets.
The labor-led, anti-right-wing vote was overwhelming in the major cities, often over 90 percent in African American, Latino and multiracial working-class communities. Labor’s influence also extended into what had been considered conservative strongholds, changing and neutralizing voters who had supported Schwarznegger in 2003.
The right-wing think tanks and Karl Rove clones are burning the midnight oil for their comeback in 2006. That campaign has already begun. Labor and community forces must find the ways to build on our 2005 victory on the local, state and national levels.
Building for 2006
Our main forces need to be strengthened. A higher level of solidarity is needed from communities and unions for every organizing drive, contract negotiation and strike struggle. For example, the hotel workers of Unite Here have a national contract battle coming up. They will need support. Cutbacks and layoffs in schools, health facilities and social programs must be blocked up and down the state.
The biggest progressive votes were in African American, Latino and multiracial working class neighborhoods. There must be campaigns to restore social programs in these areas, such as the recently shut down trauma center at L.A.’s King Drew Hospital.
Progressive legislative proposals and politicians need to be supported at all levels. Needless to say, we need an exit strategy for the governor as well as Iraq. Though labor and their coalition partners cannot rest on their laurels, they can rest assured they have continued the legacies of Miguel Contreras and Harry Bridges.