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How Labor Helped Win A Vote For More Obesity

Getting Into Bed With Big Soda

by STEVE EARLY

RICHMOND, CA.

As one-half of a dedicated (if contrarian) union household, I received multiple copies of the California Labor Federation’s official voting guide before trooping to the polls on November 6.  “Take a Stand for Working Families,” this CLF brochure commanded. “Your union conducted the research, now you decide…”

Eager to know what helpful “research” the CWA-Newspaper Guild (my union) or the UAW-affiliated National Writers Union (my wife’s preferred labor organization) might have conducted to assist electoral decision-making in our new home state, I proceeded to read further.

Most of the CLF piece explained, quite persuasively, why trade unionists should “Vote Yes” on Propositions 30 and 39 to fund schools, public safety, and other government programs and “Vote No” on Proposition 32, a measure restricting labor participation in politics.

But this “special union message” didn’t stop there. In the customized “local voter guide” on the back cover, there was a cryptic and, for us, quite troubling recommendation. As Richmond residents and good trade unionists, we were urged to oppose “Measure N,” described only as a “business license fee.”

Winning on Corporate Coattails?

When the polls closed Tuesday night, California labor had  fortunately prevailed on Propositions 30, 32, and 39, two of which involved tax increases. In Richmond, the CLF and its local affiliate, the Contra Costa Central Labor Council (CCCLC), could also claim victory on Measure N, a proposed penny-per-ounce tax on soda pop and other sugary drinks (that would have indeed been collected as part of Richmond’s “business license fee.”)

Unfortunately, labor wasn’t on the right side of this critically important referendum question, defeated by a 2 to 1 margin. Instead, those CLF brochures piling up in our mailbox were just supplementing a $2.5 million direct mail and advertising blitz orchestrated by the American Beverage Association (ABA). The ABA’s leading sponsors—Coke, Pepsi, et al–succeeded in thwarting a public health initiative widely hailed as a potential model for the rest of the nation.

In working class El Monte, CA., a similar measure, placed on the ballot by that city’s brave 37-year old Latino mayor, Andre Qunitero, was torched 4 to 1 on Tuesday. Beverage industry ad spending there totaled $1.3 million vs. the paltry $57,000 raised by the pro- soda tax forces. As Quintero told The Los Angeles Times before the outcome was confirmed: ”What they’re trying to do is not just defeat this measure, they’re trying to obliterate it, so that no elected official ever again considers putting something like this on the ballot.”

New East Bay Vanguard?

Richmond, of course, is not some southern California political outlier. Our blue-collar city of 100,000 is the largest in America with a Green mayor. According to The New York Times, Richmond is even upstaging the usual suspects–neighboring Berkeley and San Francisco–as the new “vanguard for anti-corporate left-wing activism” in the Bay Area.

That’s elite company, for sure. But, when the experienced labor and community organizers involved in Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) developed an innovative local response to our national epidemic of obesity—backed by the city council last May–they already had much prior experience jousting with big business. In Richmond, “corporate America” is mainly represented by Chevron, which operates a (sometimes explosive) century-old refinery and always spends heavily on local politicians eager to do its anti-environmental bidding.

Unfortunately, this year’s corporate tag team combination—Big Soda wrestling together with Big Oil (with Little Labor cheering them on)—proved hard to beat, in city council races and the controversial Measure N campaign. As of Wednesday morning, RPA’s two council candidates were placing fourth and fifth in the race for three open seats.

Combined corporate spending, to defeat them and Measure N, amounted to an estimated $100 per Richmond voter. The CLF’s “working families” in Contra Costa County were not well served by organized labor’s almost unanimous failure to back the pro-worker, independent political campaigning of the RPA and its highly educational advocacy of less soda drinking.

As RPA activist and former Kaiser physician Jeff Ritterman pointed out in countless public appearances on behalf of the soda tax, weight-related ailments are undermining health and shortening lifespans in working class Richmond.

A Working Class Affliction

Increased U.S. consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is a major factor in the development of obesity, Type-2 diabetes, hypertension, heart attacks, strokes, and some forms of cancer. If current trends continue, nearly half of all Americans will be obese by 2030, putting a huge additional strain on U.S. medical spending and guaranteeing a life of pain, misery, and disability for many.

According to a group of academic researchers who presented their findings to the American Public Health Association in San Francisco late last month, a tax on soda, to discourage its consumption, would produce the greatest health benefits among black and Latino Californians. In Richmond, where 85 percent of the population is non-white, they are currently most at risk for diabetes and heart disease. A recent survey found that half the city’s children are growing up overweight or obese.

Measure N would have raised $3 million or more annually. According to Ritterman, who is stepping down from his city council seat, the new tax revenue could have financed “programs that prevent childhood obesity, like healthy school gardens and nutrition and cooking classes in the schools. We also wanted to provide adequate sports fields and teams for Richmond children.” 

Helping Coke Instead

So how did state and local labor organizations, which have many black and Latino members, end up in the pro-obesity camp?

According to California Labor Federation Media Relations Director Steve Smith, “the state fed doesn’t take positions on local ballot measures.” As new union members in Contra Costa county, my wife and I had just “received a state mailer that we paid for that includes the [county] labor council’s recommendations on local measures,” Smith explained. He referred me to the Contra Costa Central Labor Council (CCCLC).

When I contacted its political action coordinator Tony Tiscareno, he helpfully described a labor endorsement process, at the county-level, which begins when a sixteen-union committee “schedules candidate and ballot measures for endorsement interviews.” That committee then makes recommendations to an executive board that includes 16 more unions, including the Teamsters, which represents beer and soda delivery drivers.

A national expert on the Teamsters speculates that IBT Local 315, a CCCLC affiliate in Martinez, “wanted to help the companies and feared that attacks on soda pop would decrease sales, which is after all the stated goal of the proposal.”

This source doubted that “the union would actually lose any members” as a result of Richmond’s plan but, like the beverage industry, didn’t want the soda tax idea to spread. When labor council delegates met to vote on the executive board’s 2012 political endorsements, Tiscarano says he heard no arguments against the recommendation for Measure N. (A call to Teamsters Local 315 on election day, seeking further details, was not returned, as promised.)

Jeff Ritterman contends he was never given the opportunity to present the pro-soda tax side before the CCCLC took its position. “The main opposition, I’m aware of, came from the Teamsters,” he told me. But the retired cardiologist questioned whether labor officials were really factoring in “the additional health care cost and loss of wages suffered by every union family member with a preventable chronic condition related to sugary drinks.”

To their credit, two local unions—Service Employees International Union Local 1021 (which shares office space with the RPA) and ATU Local 1555, which represents BART workers–urged their members to vote “yes” on Measure N.

A Management House Call

If we needed any reminder of who most of labor was partnering with on Measure N, two Coca Cola managers knocked on our door just one day before the election. These gentleman were part of a well organized, company-paid canvass of our Pt. Richmond neighborhood. To aid such efforts, their employer has published a report, called “Our Position on Obesity,” which disputes claims by doctors and scientists that soda is a leading cause of Americans being so dangerously overweight.

Perhaps in deference to the “Yes on N” sign on our lawn, the men from Coke didn’t try to pick a fight about the science. Instead, they tried to convince me that, if I voted for the soda tax, the Richmond City Council would never spend the money raised on new sports programs or health education for kids.

Ten years from now, taxing soda will probably be about as controversial as putting health warnings on cigarette packages and levying extra taxes on tobacco users to help defray the future cost of their medical treatment for smoking-related ailments. Let’s hope that long before then, labor gets its head out of the sand about America’s epidemic of obesity and what needs to done to stem it.

In the meantime, unions will continue to face pressure from major employers—including Pepsi Cola and leading California health care chains—to make medical plan changes that penalize their own members financially for being overweight and having related health problems. From the east coast to the west, labor is agreeing to costly “sin taxes” under the guise of workplace “wellness” programs.

This individualized cost-shifting will leave millions of workers on the hook for bigger healthcare premiums, co-payments, or deductibles because they can’t or won’t meet new employer standards for weight, blood pressure, body mass index, cholesterol levels, and other health indicators.

A cent-per-ounce tax on soda will look like small change in comparison. So wouldn’t it be better for labor to address the obesity problem—its own and the nation’s— before it produces another wave of collective bargaining retreat?

Steve Early became a Richmond resident in January of this year, after working for nearly three decades as a union organizer and negotiator for the Communications Workers of America in the northeast. He has been active in labor causes and campaigns since 1972. He is the author most recently of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor  from Haymarket Books and can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com)