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For Good or Bad, Organized Labor in San Antonio is Taking Matters Into Its Own Hands 

click to enlarge SANFORD NOWLIN
  • Sanford Nowlin
Come November, San Antonio voters may find themselves in the rare position of deciding the fate of four locally spurred referendums.

In February, the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association, locked in a nasty contract brawl with the city, proposed three changes to the City Charter that would whack away at the power of city government. And last week, a consortium called Working Texans for Paid Sick Time said its gathering signatures for separate referendums that would require San Antonio and Dallas to mandate businesses to give workers paid sick leave.

“Politics is so broken in Washington and in Austin that we’ve got to be more aggressive and more proactive in taking the fight to the voters,” said Rick Levy, Texas president of the AFL-CIO, one of the Working Texans’ chief backers.

Are those proposed referendums a sign that political division and dysfunction will drive a new spate of voter-initiated ballot measures? After all, use of referendums exploded in the late 19th Century when populist movements sought more checks on elected officials.

The answer is, well, maybe.

Referendums, if used strategically, could be a way to energize disenfranchised voting blocks, said Walter Wilson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio. However, it’s hard to look at the fire union’s proposals and the AFL-CIO-driven initiative through the same lens.

“The Firefighters’ [referendums] are an interesting negotiating tactic,” Wilson said. “It’s clearly coming out of this labor dispute, and it’s clearly being done out of spite.”

The union didn’t return requests for comment on this article.

Its proposals have populist appeal, with one taking direct aim at City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who’s led the city’s side of stalled collective bargaining efforts. That measure would limit future city managers’ salaries to no greater than 10 times that of the lowest-paid city employees. Sculley’s current annual pay package stands at $550,000.

The other two would allow the union a path to unilaterally bypass the binding arbitration process and to lower the number of signatures required to initiate a referendum to 20,000. Currently, to initiate a referendum, citizens must obtain signatures from 10 percent of all eligible voters in the most recent municipal election — or around 75,000 signatures, according to the Bexar County Elections Department.

The outcome is that the city will spend time, money and resources to mobilize an effort to sway voters if it aims to maintain the status quo. Whatever the result come November, the Firefighters’ effort is unlikely to be repeated in future elections — unless the stalemate lingers.

On the other hand, Wilson said the AFL-CIO’s referendum could point to a strategic shift by groups feeling left out of the political process.

About 40 percent of Texas workers don’t have paid sick leave, according to data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. And, in February, the AFL-CIO and its allies successfully lobbied Austin’s city council to become the first Texas city to mandate paid sick time.

If the coalition can get the measure on the ballot this fall, it might benefit from an energized progressive electorate, which views the midterms as a referendum on the Trump presidency. U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat, for example, has endorsed paid sick leave.

Beyond that, though, a referendum with real effect on working peoples’ lives might get them to the polls even when candidates might not, especially in a non-presidential year. Groups like the AFL-CIO could view a referendum popular with blue-collar voters as a way to give a boost to progressive candidates.

“The Democratic Party has been captured by bourgeois interests, which makes them look a lot less authentic to working-class voters,” Wilson said. “This could be a good argument to get them out again.”

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