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Ron Unz: Minimum-Wage Measure Unlikely to Make Ballot

| March 17, 2014
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Ron Unz, a wealthy conservative activist, says “it now seems unlikely” that his campaign to raise the state’s minimum wage will make it onto the state’s November ballot. He adds, “This will surely come as a surprise to many people, including myself.”

He said in a statement he’d been unable to raise enough money to qualify the measure, which would raise the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour, for the ballot. A big part of the problem, he said, was that he failed to attract the interest of labor unions he had figured would be natural allies in the minimum-wage fight. Neither did wealthy conservatives volunteer to help bankroll his campaign.

Unz is probably best known for Proposition 227, a successful 1998 initiative that sought to ban bilingual education in California. He promoted his minimum-wage ballot initiative as a way of freeing the working poor from reliance on government aid while also stimulating the economy. Last November, Unz told KQED’s Scott Shafer:

What we have right now is a crazy system where employers pay their workers so low wages that the taxpayers wind up providing billions of dollars of social-welfare subsidies for those same workers — food stamps, housing, earned-income tax credit, all those sorts of things. Now, under a logical system of free-market capitalism, employers should pay their own workers instead of forcing the taxpayers to pay them instead. What we have is a system in which employers have privatized the benefits of their workers — they get all the labor — while they’ve socialized many of the costs, forcing the taxpayers to cover the living costs of their own workers, which is ridiculous.

From his statement today, here’s Unz’s account of his unsuccessful fundraising effort:

Democrats and unions are the traditional supporters of minimum wage hikes and I initially had no contacts with such groups. My undertaking was therefore a difficult one, although I eventually managed to make considerable headway.

Several weeks ago it seemed reasonably likely that one of the largest California unions might be partnering with me on the campaign, while also serving as an anchor-donor. If this happened, I felt confident of being able to qualify my initiative for the ballot and also win a victory at the polls in November. Unfortunately, after careful consideration the union decided that its pre-existing political commitments were too large to allow it to take on an additional one on short notice. Other unions had roughly similar reactions.

Given my lack of previous familiarity with the internal dynamics of unions, this response surprised me. During 2012, California’s major unions had spent well over $100 million on various initiative campaigns, mostly to protect union dues and to balance the state budget with a tax increase on the wealthy. While union support for both of these measures, especially the first, was certainly understandable, the direct benefit to most California workers was unclear. Balancing the state budget might provide a warm sense of fiscal responsibility for low-wage workers, but little else. By contrast, just one percent of those same dollars would probably have been sufficient to achieve a $12 state minimum wage, thereby boosting worker paychecks by well over $10 billion per year, with union members annually receiving more than a billion of those dollars.

For a time, I thought I could surmount this lack of union support. My arguments on the conservative case for a higher minimum wage made great progress, and it suddenly looked like a very wealthy individual on that side of the ideological aisle was willing to become the crucial financial backer. He proposed a donation large enough to ensure that the measure would reach the ballot. But that possibility also disappeared by the end of last week.

Given these developments, it seems unlikely that my measure will be on the November ballot, which is obviously a major disappointment to me.

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About the Author ()

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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