Winning a labor battle deep in GOP territory

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How unions won in Idaho and what it means for public employee union fights in other statesĀ 


Only once in Idaho’s electoral history had voters rejected a law passed by the state legislature, and it happened all the way back in 1936. Our task this past cycle was to convince Idaho voters to do it again, this time rejecting three education-related laws passed by a Republican super majority in the state legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Butch Otter.

 In a state as deeply red as Idaho—one we knew Republican nominee Mitt Romney would win by a wide margin in November—it was no easy task to convince voters to reject the GOP establishment and essentially side with collective bargaining proponents.

It was in early 2011 when the Idaho legislature passed, and the governor signed into law, the package we had to convince voters to reject. The package of bills had been dubbed “Students Come First,” and when they passed, there was an initial public outcry in some quarters over the far-reaching laws which would effectively gut collective bargaining rights for teachers and impose a costly requirement that laptop computers be purchased for high school students so they could take controversial online classes.

The laws provoked controversy by coming out of the blue. There had been no hue and cry for so-called “education reform.” Restricting teachers’ bargaining rights and the laptop-mandate left many people scratching their heads. Yet barely more than two months after they were introduced, they were passed.

A coalition of parents and teachers that opposed the laws launched a petition drive in the spring and collected enough signatures to put the measures on the November 2012 ballot for potential repeal. But thanks to Idaho’s history of supporting what was passed by the state legislature, it was widely assumed the laws would survive.

We were also swimming against the tide that had swept other anti-collective bargaining laws into place in other parts of the country. And not only was Idaho solidly in the Romney win-column, but Mormons comprised 25 percent of the electorate so we anticipated Romney would be deployed as a messenger for the other side (which he was).

I served as the general consultant and campaign manager for the “Vote No on Propositions 1, 2 & 3” campaign. Grove Insight handled polling and focus group work; broadcast, cable and radio ads were produced by Envision Communications and The New Media Firm; Winning Mark handled direct mail and our pre-roll web videos; Stones’ Phones did targeted phone calls and telephone town halls.

Armed with a budget of nearly $3 million, due to the generous support of the National Education Association, the Idaho Education Association and the backing of more than 800 individual Idahoans, we spent a sizable chunk on traditional media. We also ran a very robust social media campaign that invested heavily in banner ads and pre-roll video ads on targeted websites.

Between a communications plan that employed local messengers and a highly targeted traditional and online media campaign, we overcame an electoral environment that was otherwise hostile to an organized labor-backed effort. What follows is the story of how we did it.

The ‘toxic’ man behind the plan

When Tom Luna, the state superintendent for public instruction, ran for reelection in 2010, he lauded the progress being made in Idaho’s public schools. Two months after being reelected, he sang a different tune. In early January, Luna told reporters “nobody has been satisfied with the results that we’ve been getting from the current system.” Two days later, before a joint meeting of the House and Senate Education Committees, Luna unveiled his “Students Come First” plan. The plan proposed to remove job protection for new teachers, use technology as more of a substitute than a supplement for face-to-face classroom learning, and raise the real prospect of larger class sizes.

All of this was being proposed without any input from Idaho’s teachers or parents. The Idaho Statesman and Lewiston Tribune questioned whether Luna could claim a mandate for his plan when he did not spell it out on the previous fall’s campaign trail. Luna was undeterred.

The next week, the legislature’s Joint Finance Appropriations Committee held its first-ever public hearing on education funding. Hundreds of people got in line as the Capitol doors opened at 6:30 a.m. Nearly 80 people testified during the four-hour meeting. All but 14 opposed Luna’s proposals. The same thing happened when public testimony on the actual legislation began. A total of 127 people signed up to speak. All but 16 of them were against the bills.


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