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In One Maine City, Solutions to the Affordability Crisis Are on the Ballot
If the Livable Portland campaign proves successful in November, it will demonstrate the power of local organizing when the federal government is gridlocked.
Blogging Our Great Divide
October 24, 2022
Across the country, many Americans are fed up with their elected officials’ failure to ensure that they can afford decent housing and earn a living wage.
In Portland, Maine, voters have a chance to tackle these problems through direct democracy. On November 8, they will find three questions on their ballots that relate to the town’s growing affordability crisis.
Question B addresses the growth of Airbnb and other short-term rentals that has driven up housing costs. The ballot initiative proposes to return approximately 350 housing units back to the long-term rental market.
Question C strengthens protections for tenants by ensuring they receive at least 90 days notice for lease terminations and rent increases.
And Question D increases the local hourly minimum wage to $18, eliminates the $6.50 subminimum wage for tipped workers, and extends minimum wage protections to gig economy workers like rideshare drivers, delivery drivers, and personal shoppers.
The Maine chapter of Democratic Socialists of America spearheaded the Livable Portland campaign that placed these questions on the ballot. The group has a strong track record of success after winning ballot initiatives in 2020 that secured rent control, a $15 minimum wage, and Green New Deal-approved building codes.
This year’s ballot questions address the community’s rising housing costs. The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University found that the annual income needed to afford a median-priced home in Portland has doubled over the past decade to a staggering $130,000. That’s a problem for the vast majority of prospective homebuyers in the Portland area, where the median household income is under $62,000.
Despite the affordability crisis, state and federal elected officials have been slow to act, motivating organizers to take actions into their own hands via ballot referendum.
“A big part of this campaign is in reaction to a lack of urgency from elected officials,” said Wes Pelletier, chair of the Livable Portland campaign. “We are using the referendum process to tackle this affordability crisis and take steps that will protect people from being priced out of the city.”
Pelletier says Livable Portland canvassers have reached approximately 600 doors each week, and the community is generally receptive to the demands of the campaign.
“There is not this sense of polarization in the community that has been advertised in the media,” says Pelletier. “What we are saying to them makes sense: It is hard to live here. These problems have gone unaddressed for years and people know that.”
Canvassers still have to engage in a fair amount of myth-busting, particularly around the issue of the subminimum wage for tipped workers. A deep-pocketed corporate disinformation campaign has led many to believe that eliminating this subminimum wage would actually reduce workers’ overall income by putting an end to tips.
“In reality, every state that has gotten rid of the subminimum wage has not seen a decrease in tipping,” said Pelletier, citing data from One Fair Wage. Seven states already require all employers to pay the full minimum wage with tips on top.
Recent campaign finance disclosures show that Restaurant Industry United, which opposes Question D and its elimination of the subminimum wage, has raised $128,700, with major contributions from Uber, Doordash, and the National Restaurant Association. Uber and Doordash are also among the top contributors to Enough is Enough, a group organized to defeat each of the 13 questions on the ballot, including the three proposed by the Livable Portland campaign.
If the Livable Portland campaign proves successful in November, it will demonstrate the power of local organizing when the federal government is gridlocked. For example, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation in 2021 to eliminate the subminimum wage and boost the federal minimum to $15 by 2025, but that bill has stalled in the Senate.
Similarly, federal courts have so far stymied efforts by the Biden administration to make it easier for millions of Uber drivers, home care workers, janitors, and other independent contractors to be classified as employees and receive federal labor protections.
“Trying to organize around federal issues can be dispiriting,” said Pelletier. “It’s so much more empowering to effectuate change on a local level so we can think what this looks like on a state or national level and set an example that shows, not only is this possible, it’s achievable, and works.”