After decades of mismanagement of the city budget by a series of Republican mayors, Ashley Swearengin planned to balance the budget by throwing our award-winning sanitation workers under the bus. The labor and community alliance that defeated Measure G represents a tipping point in the balance of power in the City of Fresno. Mayor Swearengin and her right-wing conservative allies utilized all of the political capital at their disposal to privatize sanitation workers jobs and they lost.
Their manipulation of the democratic process was impressive. First, they set up the vote on the City Council so opponents had to gather signatures to stop the privatization of workers jobs over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Somehow, despite all odds, enough signatures were gathered to demand a vote by the people. The mayor and her allies then set an election date that would guarantee a low turnout, which they believed would work to their advantage. To recruit volunteers, the mayor stooped to offering high school students a letter of recommendation to college if they worked on her Yes on G campaign.
The mayor’s group had more money, they dominated the media with their message, they had the full backing of this city’s ruling elite and they still lost. The No on G message prevailed because a strategic shift in power has taken place in Fresno that will have enormous implications for the future of this community.
Voting patterns in recent elections show that the southern two-thirds of Fresno is more progressive than those living north of Herndon Avenue. For example, in the 2012 presidential election, almost all of the precincts in central and south Fresno voted for Barack Obama. This pattern was also visible in the 2008 mayoral election where Henry T. Perea won more precincts than Ashley Swearengin but lost because of low voter turnout in southeast and southwest Fresno.
You see, the voters in northern Fresno precincts have a voter turnout in a general election in the 80% range and in southeast and southwest Fresno, many precincts have a 20% or 30% turnout. There are a lot more voters in the southern two-thirds of the city, but it is challenging to get them to the polls because of inequalities in the voting system.
Statistical data, which has just been made available to the Community Alliance, shows that voting in Fresno City Council Districts 2 and 6 (north of Shaw Avenue) voted overwhelmingly for Measure G with a 62.2% “yes” vote and a 36.7% turnout. In Districts 1, 3, 4, 5 and 7, mostly south of Shaw Avenue, the “no” vote was 63.6% with only a 21.5% turnout.
Voting obstacles for the less affluent include transportation problems, an inability to get time off from work, they are more likely to move and not re-register to vote, and thousands of people are in the Fresno County Jail, unable to get out and vote. Seventy percent of the people in jail have not been convicted of a crime; they are just waiting for a trial. The Yes on G campaign figured that they could get out the vote up north and in an off-year election still win, even though they know they are in the minority.
The amazing thing about the Measure G election was the empowerment that is starting to be realized in the less affluent parts of this city, as they united to stop the right-wing agenda of privatizing jobs and lowering workers’ wages. It was the grassroots, door-to-door campaign that the No on G organizers put together that beat big money and the powerful interests in this town.
This is a historic shift in city politics that will continue and be amplified in the 2014 City Council elections, signaling that poor and working people in this community will no longer be manipulated and disenfranchised by the ruling elite. A new labor/community alliance has emerged that will elect and hold elected officials accountable, ensuring that they represent the interests of the new majority.
Measure G supporters claimed that privatization of city sanitation workers jobs was essential to help balance the budget at City Hall. They did so with the full realization that would result in a reduction of about 25% in the wages of approximately 100 workers who would have ended up working for Mid Valley Disposal. Not only that, but their jobs would have been guaranteed only for one year. After that, they could have been fired or ended up working for minimum wage. The mayor and supporters of Measure G were willing to throw city sanitation workers under the bus to balance the budget.
The mayor and the Fresno Bee have both complained that the opponents to Measure G do not have an alternative to the draconian cutbacks that are anticipated in the recent election and defeat of Measure G. Mayor Swearengin has proposed cutting senior hot meals at community centers in southwest southeast Fresno and in the Tower District. In her “Civilian Layoff Plan,” the mayor wants to lay off 49 workers.
Here is an alternative: There are 80 employees (mostly upper management) working for the City of Fresno who earn more than $130,000 a year (five of them make more than $200,000 a year!). Because the mayor and her supporters were perfectly willing to have blue-collar workers reduce their salary by 25%, my proposal is that the mayor take an immediate 20% cut in pay. She should lead by example and force all city employees earning more than $130,000 a year to reduce their wages by 20%. Doing that would save the city $2.4 million a year. That is about what she hoped to bring in from privatizing the sanitation department.
All of the affected employees would still earn more than $100,000 a year. I would say that if you can’t live in Fresno on a $100,000+ a year salary, you are out of touch with the struggles and concerns of the average person. If the mayor would put as much energy into reducing the salaries of her top management as she did trying to throw sanitation workers under the bus, she could solve her budget crisis without sending this city spiraling into bankruptcy.