America's Most Important Minimum-Wage Campaign Way Ahead in Polls, But Lacks Funding

The country’s most important effort to raise the minimum wage—in California to $12 a hour via a statewide ballot initiative—is in trouble because a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who launched the effort says that he cannot afford to spend $2 million to hire petition circulators and politically active unions so far have not offered to help fill the gap.

“I don’t have anything against unions and I’d been looking forward to working closely with them on this campaign,” he said. “But obviously there’s no campaign at all unless I can somehow raise the funding to get the initiative on the ballot.”

California has many politically active unions that are logical backers for a statewide ballot measure that arguably is the nation’s most far-reaching minimum wage increase proposal. President Obama has proposed raising the federal minimum to $10.10 an hour, but congressional Republicans have balked. In contrast, the California measure, which Unz said was ahead in recent polls by 27 percent, is likely to pass if it is on the fall ballot. The state’s minimum wage is now $8 an hour and rises to $10 an hour in 2016.

Unz, a Republican, has received a great deal of media attention, including from GOP-friendly venues, where he has been somewhat successful in changing the minds of long-time opponents based on conservative arguments such as lessening government subsidies to underpaid workers and bolstering working people’s economic independence.  

Unz said he was placing an ad in Silicon Valley’s daily newspaper on Wednesday to explain the situation and ask others to help. “Reports of my personal wealth have been exaggerated, and I don’t have the money to fund the signature drive necessary to place the initiative on the ballot,” it says. “But Silicon Valley has other people who do.” 

The campaign needs to raise about $2 million to hire a crew to collect 800,000 signatures statewide to generate at least 505,000 valid signatures from registered voters to put the initiative on the November ballot. Working families will gain about $15 billion a year starting in 2016, the ad says, and taxpayers “would also save billions once those low-wage workers no longer require food stamps and other anti-poverty assistance.”

Unz said he hit a brick wall with various California unions—which have state-level organizations and operate with some autonomy from their national political leadership. Last fall, Unz said that Damon Silver, the AFL-CIO’s national policy director, was very supportive and helped to introduce him to California union leaders. Unz said that he met with some of them in recent weeks to explain the funding issue, including two unions that are known nationally for minimum-wage campaigns: Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

“Over several weeks I spoke with many of their leaders and answered all their questions,” Unz said. “They soon became quite supportive of the effort and eager to see it get on the ballot and win. But none of them have been willing to provide the necessary financial backing, although some of them did consider doing so.”

SEIU is backing three other California statewide ballot measures this year. The first seeks to lower healthcare costs by capping hospital charges at 25 percent above their cost. The second would limit multi-million-dollar compensation packages for non-profit hospital executives. The third would create a minimum wage for home care workers.

“They’re all focused on their own political projects, aimed at benefiting their own small slice of union members,” Unz said, saying that was ironic because last summer the unions were talking about spending $12-$13 million on a state minimum-wage ballot measure. Unz also said California unions spent roughly $60 million in 2012 to stop an anti-union dues ballot measure that would have undermined funding their political efforts.   

“The [California] unions have been a huge disappointment on this,” he said. “Admittedly the bulk of the $10 to $15 billion in annual wage gains from a $12 minimum wage would go to non-unionized workers, but at least a billion or two dollars would go to union members and the cost of qualifying the measure is so trivial by comparison, it would seem extremely cost-effective since the polls show it would win in a huge landslide.”

Union officials reached on Tuesday praised Unz’s efforts but declined to do more.

“SEIU welcomes Mr. Unz to the labor movement’s long-term struggle to lift wages, rebuild the middle class, and reduce our growing inequality, and we wish him well with this particular initiative,” Jon Youngdahl, executive director, SEIU California State Council, said. “This is a long-term struggle with many fronts and many strategies, and Mr. Unz has lent his voice and wealth to amplify one part of that bigger conversation. Regardless of whether he succeeds in raising the money needed, that’s a good thing.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), which has been involved in living wage campaigns at Walmart stores, declined to comment Tuesday. Unz said the state chapter of the National Education Association has not returned his calls, although teacher salaries are not really impacted by the minimum wage. Unz said he has not yet reached out to the California Nurses Association.

“The unions say the wealthy liberals should pay for it and the wealthy liberals assume the unions will pay for it,” he said. 

The bottom line appears to be that Unz will have to find other wealthy individuals who support raising the state’s minimum wage. He said he has been trying for weeks to quietly raise the funds, but because he has not succeeded he is now going public.

“There are so many wealthy people in California, including many of whom who believe in raising the minimum wage,” he said. “Maybe someone sees the ad. There’s hundreds of people who could do it without noticing any difference to their bank accounts.”   

Unz said that there was one more possibility for finding a funder—going to conservatives who might draw some pleasure in outflanking unions and raising the minimum wage.

“There are lots of ultra-wealthy conservatives and libertarians around and maybe I can get one of them to fund the campaign,” he said. “Late last week, when I was getting desperate, I pointed out to the union leaders how bad it would look if some right-winger raised the wages of California workers by $15 billion while the unions were just too cheap and selfish and sat on their hands….I was trying to really light a fire under those union leaders last week, but I never heard anything back from them.”

The silence from unions and liberals has been truly mystifying, Unz said.

“I’d very much hoped to be able to raise the money from wealthy liberals and have been surprised it’s been so extremely difficult,” he said. “I can’t figure out why someone wouldn’t want to take national credit for such an important project. Even if they tell me the unions will surely pay for it, why wouldn't they want the credit for themselves? But I just haven’t had any luck and I'm really getting desperate, which is why I'll be running that public newspaper ad starting tomorrow, which is pretty much a last resort.”


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