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QUESTION 1: THE ROAD NOT TRAVELLED

Creative Commons Public Domain
Creative Commons Public Domain

A broader appeal could have resulted in a win for nurses and patients

 

November 14, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

There was no way I was going to criticize Question 1, prosaically dubbed the Nurse-Patient Assignment Limits Initiative, in advance of Election Day. As a longtime labor advocate, I didn’t think it would be appropriate to publicly gainsay a decent union, the Mass Nurses Association (MNA). Even though I thought that its ballot campaign was a strategic miscalculation. But now that the election’s over and the PR dust around the effort is settling, I think it’s important to say something on the matter. Because I hate to see popular organizations I like make political moves that I view to be avoidable mistakes. And I really want the labor movement to go from strength to strength in this difficult era for working people. Not get crushed at the polls.

 

The referendum question, for those of you who need a refresher, aimed to mandate specific staff-to-patient ratios for registered nurses in the Bay State so that RNs would have fewer patients to care for on each shift in most situations. The aim of the initiative was to reduce overwork for RNs and improve patient care. Certainly laudable goals. And ones that the MNA and other advocates have been fighting to reach for years, according to the union’s own literature. In the course of that struggle, the MNA had tried to win better staffing ratios at the contract bargaining table, and in the regulatory and legislative arenas. All with limited success.

 

Finally, they decided to take the issue to the voters. A sensible step… when the other efforts didn’t bring the desired results.

 

But Question 1 was resoundingly defeated—with 70.38 percent voting against, and only 29.62 percent in favor. When just a couple of months ago, it looked like the union position might prevail. So I think it’s worth looking at why the initiative failed.

 

It’s certainly true that one reason for the outcome was that the hospital industry had significantly deeper pockets than the MNA and its allies. But only by a factor of two-to-one. Which is not terrible for this kind of David v. Goliath fight. According to Ballotpedia, the labor-backed Committee to Ensure Safe Patient Care raised over $11 million ($10 million plus of that sum from the MNA) to the hospital industry-supported Coalition to Protect Patient Safety’s $26 million ($25 million of that total coming from the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association).

 

If Question 1 co-author 1199SEIU—a larger healthcare workers’ union—had not chosen to remain neutral on the question it helped draft, perhaps there would have been funding parity between the two sides. Yet even without the extra money and troops SEIU would have brought with it, the MNA put an impressive organizing campaign on the ground.

 

So I don’t think money’s the main factor behind the strong no vote on the MNA ballot effort.

 

I think the big problem with Question 1 was that it took a policy wonk approach that appeared to benefit a relatively small group of workers if passed. Rather than a rights-based approach that could have demanded direct benefits for a demonstrably larger community. Namely patients. A group that includes literally everyone in the state at one time or another.

 

So, as written, the referendum question appeared to mainly benefit registered nurses. And that is where the MNA and allies immediately ran into trouble. There aren’t that many RNs. According to the Mass Board of Registration in Nursing, there were 130,048 RN licensees in 2018. Which it says includes 12,112 active advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs)—mainly nurse practitioners with master’s degrees.

 

If we subtract the APRNs, we’re left with nearly 120,000 RNs of various types out of a total workforce of over 3,500,000. Or about 3.4 percent of Massachusetts workers. A significant group. But not a major group like, again, all the once-and-future patients in the state.

 

MNA definitely tried to target the political campaign around their initiative on benefits to patient safety. The difficulty the union faced there was that the language of Question 1 was quite obviously framed more around what was good for RNs than what was good for patients. Even its committee name pointed to “safe patient care”—wording aimed at nurses—while the hospital industry committee name directly mentioned “patient safety.” In a situation where the ballot campaign’s opposition seemingly put the interest of the much larger community of patients front and center while the MNA didn’t, the union lost control of its own narrative. Which probably resulted in the one group that should have backed the question strongly—RNs—being almost evenly split (48 percent for, 45 percent against) on it by the time of the vote, according to a poll by WBUR.

 

The nurses’ union also tried to make a yes vote on its initiative sound like a great struggle for the labor movement as a whole. Yet here again, it was hamstrung by the narrow language of its referendum question. MNA and other advocates strove mightily to show that a vote for Question 1 was a vote for all workers. But once people sympathetic to labor and the working class in general read the question, what did they see?

 

The question didn’t seek to expand workers’ power in any broad way. It didn’t try to expand patients’ rights, although it could have potentially improved their care. And it didn’t expand the rights of any other stakeholder communities.

 

Mostly what people saw was a question that would raise costs for hospitals and only help one group of healthcare workers—registered nurses. Not orderlies, not techs, not LPNs, not physical therapists, not respiratory therapists, not nutritionists, not speech therapists, not physician assistants, not pharmacists, and certainly not doctors.

 

Add to those problems the fact that Question 1 was too long—the summary presented on voters’ ballots was twice the length of either of the other two questions at 626 words—and too technical (using inside baseball language like “[t]he proposed law would also require every covered facility to develop a written patient acuity tool for each unit to evaluate the condition of each patient”), and it seems pretty clear in hindsight that the effort was doomed from the start. Matching the hospital industry dollar for dollar likely wouldn’t have changed the outcome enough for the MNA to win.

 

I’m writing this brief analysis to make sure that similar future efforts take such issues into account in advance. And that labor advocates choosing to embark upon referendum campaigns going forward make sure that they are rights-based and expand power for major communities of interest.

 

That is the path to victory for grassroots political campaigns of any type. Most especially ones aimed at expanding rights for working people and other currently disenfranchised groups.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

GRAND SCHEME

workers protesting

 

Mass legislature helps, harms workers in “deal” with labor and business lobbies

 

June 26, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

No sooner did the Supreme Judicial Court shoot down the “millionaires’ tax” referendum question last week than the Mass legislature rammed a so-called grand bargain bill (H 4640) through both chambers. A move aimed at shoring up tax revenue threatened by the Retailers Association of Massachusetts referendum question that is virtually certain to lower the state sales tax from 6.25 percent to 5 percent if it should go before voters in November.

 

The house and senate did this by rapidly completing the brokering of a deal that had been in the works between pro-labor and pro-business forces on those issues for months. Giving each side something it wanted in exchange for encouraging the Raise Up Mass coalition to take its remaining two referendum questions—paid family and medical leave, and the $15 an hour minimum wage—off the table, and the retailers association to do the same with its sales tax cut question. Both organizations have not yet made the decision to do so.

 

If passed, the so-called grand bargain bill will give labor watered-down versions of its paid family and medical leave and $15 an hour minimum wage ballot questions, and give business something that’s explicitly anti-labor: the end of time-and-a-half wages for people working Sundays and holidays, and their ability to legally refuse to work Sunday and holiday shifts.

 

While Gov. Charlie Baker still has to sign the bill, as of this writing it’s looking like he will do so. Soon.

 

Which is a pity because it’s not such a great deal for working people as written. True, the grand bargain does ensure that the state minimum wage will raise to $15 an hour for many workers. But it moves up to that rate from the current $11 an hour over five years, instead of the four years it would take with the referendum version. Plus it betrays tipped employees, whose wage floor will only rise from a pathetic $3.75 an hour now to a still pathetic $6.75 an hour by 2023. Keeping all the cards in the bosses’ hands in the biggest tipped sector, the restaurant industry. Although it’s worth mentioning that even the referendum version of the $15 an hour wage plan would have only raised tipped employees to $9 an hour. When what’s needed is a single minimum wage for all workers.

 

It also makes Massachusetts one of the first states in the nation to institute paid family and medical leave for many workers. Which is truly a noteworthy advance. Yet again, the referendum version is better for workers than the grand bargain version.

 

But legislators gave away another noteworthy advance from 20 years ago in the process: time-and-a-half wages for many employees who work on Sundays and holidays. Which will hurt some of the same people who the new minimum wage and paid and family medical leave will help.

 

Thus far, the labor-led Raise Up Massachusetts coalition has had mostly positive things to say about the deal. However, the main union representing supermarket workers—many of whom currently take Sunday and holiday shifts—is already vowing to torpedo the grand bargain. Even though their union contracts also mandate time-and-a-half pay for working Sundays and holidays. And they’ve resolved to take down legislators who backed it over their protest.

 

Jeff Bollen, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445, minced no words on the subject in a recent video message to his members:

 

“I am really pissed off at our state legislature for stabbing retail workers in the back by taking away time and a half on Sundays and holidays for all retail workers in Massachusetts.


“Remember, it was this local union in 1994 with big business and the retail association wanting to get rid of the blue laws; so they could open up their supermarkets, their big box stores, and their liquor stores and make money on Sundays that we fought hard to get a law passed to protect you, the retail worker. And we did.”

 

The supermarket union leader went on to explain that state lawmakers “panicked” when the millionaires’ tax was derailed and pushed through the grand bargain to avoid losing any more revenue from the referendum question to lower the sales tax. He swore the union was “going to remove those individuals that voted against you. We’re going to get them removed and replaced with pro-labor legislators who are going to fight for the rights of working people.” And defiantly concluded: “We’re going to continue to fight. We’re going to continue to try to get this whole thing repealed.”

 

How much support the UFCW can expect to get from the rest of the labor movement remains to be seen. But the fact is that some Bay State working families are going to suffer nearly as much pain as gain from the grand bargain.

 

Worse still, there’s a deeper problem with the bill. It potentially stops the retailers’ referendum drive to lower the sales tax—which they’ve definitely put on the ballot to ensure that big businesses make more profits. But it must not be forgotten that the sales tax is a regressive tax that disproportionately harms working families. And even though the state desperately needs money for many programs that help the 99 percent, it remains a bad way to raise funds compared to a progressive tax system that would force the rich to pay higher tax rates than everyone else. Like the federal government has done for over a hundred years.

 

Yet since the rich and their corporations continue to rule the roost in state politics, and since a state constitutional amendment would be required to allow a progressive tax system in Massachusetts, there is no way that is going to happen anytime soon. As I wrote last week, the millionaires’ tax would have at least increased the amount of progressivity in the tax system had it been allowed on the ballot (where it was projected to win handily). But business lobbies got the SJC to stop that move.

 

Given that, the revenue lost from a sales tax cut would really hurt in a period when many major state social programs are already being starved for funds.

 

Nevertheless, many working families will take a big hit from the grand bargain bill as written: They’ll see the full introduction of the $15 minimum wage delayed by an extra year, they’ll get a worse version of paid family and medical leave, they’ll lose time-and-a-half wages on Sundays and holidays, they’ll see the sales tax remain at 6.25 percent… and if they’re tipped employees, they’ll still be made to accept a lower minimum wage than the relevant ballot question would get them and still have to rely on customers to tip them decently and their bosses to refrain from skimming those tips.

 

So, it would behoove Raise Up Massachusetts and its constituent labor, community, and religious organizations to stay the course with the paid family and medical leave and $15 an hour minimum wage referendum questions that are still slated to appear on the November ballot. And pro-labor forces should also be ready to lobby harder for a better deal should Gov. Baker refuse to sign the grand bargain bill.

 

Of course, it could very well be that the bill will be signed into law before this article hits the stands, and that labor and their allies will throw in the towel on their ballot questions. And that would be a shame.

 

Here’s hoping for a better outcome for Massachusetts workers. Even at this late date.

 

Note: Raise Up Massachusetts announced that it had accepted the “grand bargain” bill shortly before this article went to press on Tuesday evening (6.26), according to the Boston Business Journal.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

CAPITALIST VETO

Money tips the scales of justice image

 

Popular “millionaires’ tax” referendum question blocked by a pro-business SJC

 

June 19, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

The Fair Share Amendment—better known as the “millionaires’ tax”—that would have gone before voters this November as a statewide referendum question was shot down this week by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). So the effort to increase taxes on people making $1 million-plus a year and spend the resulting funds on social needs is over. For the moment.

 

Organized over the last three years by Raise Up Massachusetts, a major coalition of labor, community, and religious organizations, the initiative had the support of two-thirds of Bay State voters in recent polling and had a good shot at passing.

 

The campaign was spearheaded by the Commonwealth’s two largest unions, Service Employees International Union and Mass Teachers Association. And naturally, most Massachusetts rich people had no intention of letting anyone—let alone a bunch of union leaders, social workers, and priests—raise their taxes.

 

Flunkies and front groups were then unleashed. The Massachusetts High Technology Council put together a bloc of capitalist lobby groups—including the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, and the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership—and challenged the amendment’s constitutionality.

 

They were aided in this push by the fact that Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, was able to appoint five of seven justices to the SJC since taking office in 2015. Including one that, in fairness, wrote the dissenting opinion on the Fair Share Amendment ruling.

 

Thus, it was no big surprise that the SJC shot the millionaires’ tax down on a legal technicality. Since the wealth lobby had no convincing political argument against the tax beyond “we don’t want to pay it.” But they had high-powered lawyers, plenty of money, and a court stacked in the right direction. Theirs. A capitalist veto in the making.

 

Professor Lawrence Friedman of New England Law | Boston explained the decision succinctly on a special edition of The Horse Race podcast—hosted by Lauren Dezenski of Politico Massachusetts and Steve Koczela of the MassINC Polling Group:

 

“What a majority of the court concluded was that this petition didn’t satisfy the requirements of article 48 [of the Mass constitution] for a valid petition that can go before the voters in November. Because it failed what’s called the ‘relatedness’ requirement—the various parts of the petition didn’t relate to each other sufficiently to pass constitutional muster.

 

“So the three parts of the petition involve the revenue raising measure, the so-called millionaire’s tax, and then two distinct dedications—one to education and one to transportation. And the court essentially said that, except at a very abstract level, those things are not sufficiently related to satisfy the relatedness requirement.”

 

The minority of the court, for their part, had a very different view. According to Justice Kimberly Budd (joined by Gov. Deval Patrick appointee Chief Justice Ralph Gants, and pardon the legalese here):

 

“Disregarding the plain text of art. 48, The Initiative, II, § 3, of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution, as amended by art. 74 of the Amendments, which requires that an initiative petition contain ‘only subjects … which are related or which are mutually dependent,’ the court concludes that, in drafting this language the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1917-1918 inserted the words ‘or which are mutually dependent’ as superfluous text. … The court goes on to conclude that the people may not express their opinion on a one section, four-sentence petition because it contains subjects that are not related. … That analysis is flawed.”

 

In plain English, to rather brutally paraphrase further remarks by Friedman on The Horse Race, activists amended the state constitution a hundred years ago to allow the people of Massachusetts to make laws by referendum because even then the legislative process had been captured by corporations and the rich in ways perhaps unforeseen by John Adams when he drafted the document in 1780.

 

To block the Fair Share Amendment referendum from going on the ballot for a vote is therefore not in the spirit of the sentence at the core of the SJC majority’s case. The court’s pro-business majority focused on the “relatedness requirement.” Its pro-worker minority countered that referendum questions that contain “unrelated” items that are “mutually dependent” pass constitutional muster. But with five votes to two, the majority prevailed.

 

The result? The tiny percentage of Mass residents who make more than a cool million a year will not see their state taxes rise from 5.1 to 9.1 percent. And the estimated $2 billion that was expected to be raised from that levy annually will not be applied to the Commonwealth’s education and transportation budgets. Both areas that are ridiculously underfunded given our state’s wealth relative to much of the rest of the nation.

 

Worse still, the spurious myth that the Mass capitalists’ “coalition of the willing” flogged—and continues to flog in the case of the Boston Herald’s ever fact-light columnist Howie Carr—that rich people leave states that increase their taxes will continue to seem like reality to less careful onlookers of the local political scene. Despite the fact that a major study and a book entitled The Myth of Millionaire Tax Flight: How Place Still Matters for the Rich by Stanford University sociology professor Cristobal Young have used big data to dismiss the idea as mere scaremongering, according to Commonwealth magazine.

 

Now Raise Up Massachusetts has two options: 1) start the referendum process all over again with language that will pass muster with the narrowest and most conservative interpretation of the “relatedness’ requirement,” or 2) take the fight to the legislature.

 

With the chances of the legislature passing any kind of tax increase being approximately zero as long as Robert DeLeo is House speaker, starting the referendum process again from scratch is pretty much the only way to go.

 

Unless Raise Up leaders decide to make some kind of “deal” with the legislature. Which I sincerely hope is not the case. Because the whole Fair Share campaign is already a major compromise given that the real goal of any forward-thinking left-wing reformer in this arena has to be the repeal of article 44 of the state constitution that prohibits a graduated income tax system. Followed by the passage of such a system.

 

While I’m well aware that every attempt to do that has been defeated in the past, I’m also aware that if referendum questions aimed at the much broader goal of winning a fair tax system were on the table, then it would be possible to negotiate for something smaller like the “millionaires’ tax” if the effort ran into trouble.

 

As things stand, Raise Up Mass appears to have little room to maneuver. So, better to start preparing for a win in 2022 on an improved referendum strategy—preferably aiming for a graduated income tax to replace our anemic flat tax system—than to make a bad deal merely to be able to declare a false “victory” to its supporters and switch its public focus to the two other drives it still has in play: paid family and medical leave, and the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.