While 52 percent of Floridians voted for George Bush in the November election, 72 percent backed a Bush-unfriendly ballot initiative: a constitutional amendment raising the minimum wage. The law set a state wage floor of $6.15 an hour, a dollar higher than the federal level, which hasn’t been boosted since 1997. It also pegged the state’s new minimum wage to inflation, so that the lowest-paid workers will get automatic increases each year to keep pace with increases in their cost of living.
Many unions, environmental groups and civil rights organizations had been working in Florida for months before the election to register new voters. But the strategy of Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) of mobilizing voters around the ballot initiative stands out. Besides using the initiative campaign to expand voter turnout among the poor, the group also used this effort to build a progressive infrastructure that can influence Florida politics for years to come.
“Our work won’t end on November 3,” said Brian Kettenring, an ACORN organizer who led the Florida effort, as the election neared. “We’re just getting started.”
Polls and Politics
The decision for ACORN, which has chapters in 28 states, to invest heavily in a Florida campaign was not made in haste. The group commissioned a statewide poll in November 2003 that found overwhelming support for increasing the state’s minimum wage, especially among low-income and minority residents.
The poll also indicated that a minimum wage campaign could have implications for the 2004 presidential election. The Florida electorate was evenly divided between Bush and the Democrat, who had yet to be chosen, and polling data showed that turnout would be critical. Bush enjoyed a three-point lead among the most likely voters, but trailed a generic Democrat by 17 points among less certain voters.
“Support for the increase in the minimum wage cuts across demographic groups, and is particularly high among … key turnout targets including African American and Hispanic registered non-voters,” wrote Celinda Lake, who conducted the poll, in her report to ACORN. “In addition, the same voters are… likely to say that the minimum wage is an important issue and would raise their interest in next year’s election. The opportunity to seize the initiative and vote themselves a raise directly… appears to be highly motivating. In all, the findings suggest that this initiative could be an especially effective vehicle for turning out progressive voters in 2004.”
Beyond motivating likely Democratic voters, the poll showed that the minimum wage initiative could send a message that Democrats are clearly on the side of the overwhelming majority of voters. “It will allow us to talk about something positive and straightforward on an issue that matters to voters – especially at the end of the campaign as things get nastier and more confusing and many voters tune the campaign out,” Lake continued.
ACORN was betting that many low-income people, who might not otherwise register or vote, would do so to increase their pay, and once they went to the polls, they would vote overwhelmingly for a Democrat.
ACORN budgeted over $2 million for the campaign. In addition to a team of strategists, pollsters, fundraisers and a full-time coalition coordinator, the group deployed a field staff of 40 organizers, up to 60 canvassers, and over 2,000 volunteers. The field staff gathered signatures, registered 122,000 voters and implemented a get-out-the-vote plan that resulted in a net increase in turnout of 68,000 new voters in November.
The campaign roused the interest of wealthy progressive donors, major Democratic party players, unions and well-financed anti-Bush groups smitten by the notion that helping the poor was not only an end in itself, but a way to dump Bush. MoveOn.org and Americans Coming Together, two groups working to defeat the president, agreed to participate with ACORN. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) also played a major role. ACORN attracted 15 major donors in Florida, some of whom contributed more than $25,000.
ACORN’s organizing staff set up offices to coordinate hundreds of its members and people from other organizations working under the umbrella of Floridians For All. With help from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the prestigious law firm of White & Case, an amendment to the state’s constitution was drafted and readied for a petition drive. To qualify for the ballot, the petition required 570,000 signatures.
The organizing staff focused on six counties – Pinellas, Hillsborough, Orange, Dade, Broward and Palm. The staff and volunteers began working with colleges, universities and high schools that serve or are located in low- and moderate-income communities. Crews of young people went door-to-door as well as to street festivals, sporting events, naturalization ceremonies and rock concerts to get petitions signed.
In a preemptive strike in March, the Republicans attempted to keep the minimum wage amendment off the November ballot. The Republican-dominated state Senate passed three constitutional amendments that mirrored proposals put forth by the Florida Chamber of Commerce; these would make it harder for a grassroots citizen movement to amend the constitution.
ACORN and the AFL-CIO lobbied the entire House Democratic delegation and a modest number of Republicans. To block the proposed amendments, ACORN needed 31 votes. There were 39 Democrats in the House. In response to the lobbying, House Minority Leader Doug Wiles called a public press conference announcing the Democrats’ intention to oppose the Senate proposals.
The next day, ACORN held a boisterous press conference and rally with the House Democratic leadership. Thunderous chants of “Who are we? ACORN! What do we want? Justice!” reverberated throughout the Capitol. The rally and the extensive media coverage helped to defeat the attempts to remove the minimum wage amendment. MoveOn.org and True Majority both launched Internet campaigns that week to apply additional opposition. And SEIU contributed its phone bank for the next five days to make calls targeting key legislators.
With that battle behind it, ACORN could concentrate on getting the word out about the ballot measure. Staff organized over 70 groups including unions, churches, community groups and local and national officials to join the campaign. ACORN also held rallies across the state.
On July 2, ACORN turned in to Secretary of State Glenda Hood the last of the over 984,000 petition signatures that the group and its allies had gathered. As they waited for Hood to act, organizers initiated three parallel efforts: aggressive legal and political work to ensure nothing jeopardized the ballot status; a massive voter registration effort, seeking to surpass 200,000 new registrants; and building the coalition and overall campaign structure, positioning Floridians For All for heightened voter contact and engagement through Election Day. Two unions made substantial commitments: the National Education Association contributed $250,000 to the effort, and AFSCME, $100,000.
By the end of the month, the first phase of ACORN’s plan was accomplished; the Secretary of State validated the necessary signatures.
At this point, businesses, especially those that rely on low-paid workers, began to put their campaign against the referendum into high gear. They argued that the wage hike was unnecessary, because demand for workers had already driven up wages far above the minimum. They also argued that it would limit opportunities for workers entering the job market.
On September 23, Florida retail industry leaders unveiled a plan to fight the amendment. They formed a political action committee called the Coalition to Save Florida Jobs, which canvassed employers for a study on the potential effects of the minimum wage proposal. About 65 percent of the 700 respondents said they would probably hire fewer workers or outsource more jobs as a result of the change, while 48 percent said they would raise their retail prices and 34 percent said they would probably cut employee benefits such as health insurance and retirement.
ACORN soon hit back hard. In flyers and talking point memos ACORN attacked the Florida Retail Federation for its efforts to “preserve special interest tax breaks while making it harder for workers injured on the job to receive compensation.”
“Tying the minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index lets employees keep up with the prices those businesses are charging,” said Jen Kern, director of the Living Wage Resource Center for ACORN. She spoke at press conferences and briefings across the state, armed with an economic analysis by researchers from the University of Massachusetts. The study put the cost of the minimum wage increase and “ripple effect” wages for other workers at $443 million. Put another way, that means that Florida’s low-income workers would experience a $443 million salary increase. The report also said that businesses could make up the cost by raising revenues by just a quarter of 1 percent.
In October, the business groups launched television ads equating the minimum wage initiative with Florida’s recent hurricanes, calling the proposal a job killer. ACORN countered with an ad campaign of its own on cable TV, showing a working woman with grocery bags on one arm and one of her two children on the other, urging people to vote “yes on 5” to help them meet the spiraling cost of “basic necessities like food, rent and health care.”
On Election Day, over 1,600 volunteers and workers knocked on doors and more than 4.9 million people voted for the minimum wage amendment. Many Floridians, including middle class people who supported President Bush and Republican Mel Martinez (winner of the open U.S. Senate seat), also voted to raise the minimum wage. Their choices show that broad support exists in Florida, a so-called red state, for progressive causes. Had John Kerry spoken out strongly in favor of raising the minimum wage in Florida, it is likely he would be president today. As for ACORN, it will look to build on the gains it made in this campaign in communities throughout the state over the next four years.