After gathering some 30,000 signatures and funding a considerable grassroots organization throughout the state, a Washington, D.C.-based union mysteriously pulled the plug last month on I-159, the statewide ballot initiative to create a unionized workforce of in-home caregivers. Siding with health care groups and Democratic lawmakers who felt left out of the planning process, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) yielded to calls that it pull back and collaborate on a bill in the upcoming legislature.
“After we talked to key stakeholders in the state, we decided to go the legislative route,” says Ted Dick, political director for SEIU’s 775 Northwest chapter.
That change in direction has some wondering if SEIU is now shepherding its plan to a dead end considering the last legislature’s brutal budget wars, the attempted slashing of the Department of Health and Human Services budget, and the current refrain of cabinet staff forecasting a “belt-tightening” legislative session in 2009.
“[The legislature] is always a challenge,” Dick says. “And we’re mentally prepared for that…We’re not overconfident, but we’re not intimidated either.”
Dick adds this was SEIU’s best play. After the campaign gained momentum, he began receiving calls from Democratic legislators and health care organizations that voiced concerns about the cost of SEIU’s plan and a lack of input from the health care industry.
“We felt sort of blind-sided by SEIU,” says Bob Liston, state organizer for ADAPT, a national disability rights organization.
Lawmakers say they were also concerned with the initiative’s $30–40 million annual burden on the state.
“Legislators should set the state’s budget,” says Missoula Sen. Carol Williams, the Senate majority leader. “This would open the door to impact the state’s budget before legislators had even seen it.”
Now, SEIU has become a partner with “Montanans for Health Care,” a new grassroots organization that’s part of a nationwide coalition pushing for universal health care.
“We’re excited that we have some new partners,” says Dick, hopeful that such relationships will help SEIU’s cause.