By Steve Smith
Courtesy of the California Labor Federation
To some, the crushing victory over the harmful effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom this week didn’t come as a surprise. After all, it’s California. A recall of a Democratic Governor couldn’t happen here, right? Wrong.
When right-wing extremists qualified the recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this year, few were paying attention. The pundits didn’t take it seriously. Voters were tuned out. But workers always knew the stakes and what it would take to win: A massive ground game to reach voters in-person on the very real and existential threat this recall posed, not just to Gov. Newsom’s job, but to our shared values as Californians.
The labor movement knows that people power and organizing wins. When California’s unions sprang into action to defeat this recall, polls showed an extremely tight race. Our own research revealed widespread apathy among voters, especially those we needed most to vote NO. But our research also showed something else. Once voters heard that this election was really about stripping workers of hard-fought rights we’ve won over decades—like the minimum wage, paid family leave, immigrant rights, prevailing wage—those voters quickly became engaged. We also knew no amount of TV ads would win this election alone. No, this was a campaign tailor-made for real conversations. And nothing short of having those conversations on a massive scale would help us to secure victory.
Over the course of the summer, union volunteers showed up in record numbers through their unions and central labor councils to drive unprecedented engagement in this election. Statewide, we set a goal of 10,000 volunteers at the start of the campaign. We ended up with more than double that. Groups of workers protested anti-union candidates across the state, including some powerful and pivotal protests organized by labor councils.
As a direct result, the tide turned. The main reason the recall effort started hemorrhaging support in the final weeks is because voters connected the stakes on bread-and-butter issues like jobs, wages and health care to the billionaire-backed effort to recall Gov. Newsom. When union volunteers ramped up the field program to contact voters on the issues that they care most about, we saw a seismic shift in the polls. Voters got it. Ballots began flooding mailboxes to vote NO.
Still, in an off-year election that was all about turnout, we had to fight for every vote. This wasn’t about partisan politics. It was about our pocketbooks. When leading replacement candidate Larry Elder said he thought the minimum wage should be ZERO, workers who had fought tooth-and-nail to win a $15 minimum wage in California mobilized to make sure every union member and working-class voter in the state knew that threat. When Elder attacked women, immigrants and people of color, working people spread the word in-person, online, over the phone and through text messaging.
What once was an election few cared about became an extreme threat to the things we value the most.
While this election was wasteful (to the tune of nearly $300 million it cost taxpayers), it wasn’t an exercise in futility. The mobilization of working people around the core economic issues that led to the defeat of the recall will live on long after every last vote is counted. The labor movement once again proved that every campaign is an organizing opportunity. What we built in 2021 to defeat the recall will carry over into the next election year. It will carry over into the organizing campaigns that will grow our movement. It will carry over into legislative wins to build power for all workers.
The billionaire backers of this anti-union recall thought they were going to pull a fast one on Californians. Instead, they woke a sleeping giant of union volunteers. It’s up to us now to take the fight to the anti-union special interests. To use this massive victory to advance workers’ rights and hold those in power who try to stop us accountable.
September 14 was just the beginning. And it once again goes to show what we as a movement have always known: When we fight, we win!