In 2003 trade unions in Idaho launched a campaign to repeal the state’s 1980s-era Right To Work law, which had hobbled organized labor by banning mandatory dues-collection in union workplaces. The petition drive gathered enough signatures to place an initiative before voters, but during the certification process county clerks disallowed thousands of them, so the measure didn’t make it onto the 2004 ballot. While the campaign was under way, though, drivers heading west on I-90 toward better-paying jobs across the state line in Spokane would come across a billboard that read, IF RIGHT TO WORK IS SO GOOD, WHY ARE YOU WORKING IN WASHINGTON?
Two years on, the I-90 billboard hosts an ad for Hooters, but the unions are trying again. And as in 2004, this time around the signature-gathering effort, a grassroots, bare-bones affair, is once more coming down to the wire.
Late last August the northern Idaho town of Coeur d’Alene hosted the annual county fair, one of the high points of which is the demolition derby. On the side of an old black Mercury were painted the words SMASH RIGHT TO WORK. The car’s entrance number was 86 (1986 was the year Idaho’s citizenry passed the Right To Work initiative, which, wags point out, resulted in citizens being allowed the “right to work for less”), and it was driven by the friend of a recently killed son of Brad Cederblom, a large, bearded, ironworkers’ union organizer. The words had been added to the car during a paint-party in front of the house of Barbara Harris, a retired electrical worker and president of the Northern Idaho Central Labor Council. They would serve, anti-Right To Workers hoped, as a low-cost magnet that would draw registered voters to sign the Repeal Right To Work petition. That summer day, in front of thousands of fans, many of them workers for local resource-sector companies, the Mercury came in second, stopping only when its back had been crumpled into the rear tires and its hood had been upended like the rocks on an earthquake’s fault line.
Yet the thousands of signatures the organizers were hoping for in the wake of this gutsy derby performance didn’t suddenly materialize, despite the fact that about half the electorate supports repeal, according to one Idaho State University poll. Instead, they came in from around the state over the following months in dribs and drabs, garnered at local parades, college football games, even at ski swaps and petition drives on courthouse steps. The old mining and lumber strongholds in the north–around Coeur d’Alene and the gritty industrial town of Lewiston–did generate many thousands of signatures. But in the south of the state, in the heavily populated and traditionally nonunion areas of Boise and Idaho Falls, where a high-tech beachhead has recently been established by the influx of companies like Micron, the campaign had largely failed to gain traction by year’s end. Even in the old railway hub of Pocatello, the movement didn’t really lift off in the summer and fall.
Now, with weeks left until the signature-gathering deadline, as the winter snows settle over the land and as the rivers freeze solid, organizers are scrambling for signatures, trying to reassure people that employers won’t blacklist those who sign their names in support of repeal. The Citizens’ Committee to Repeal Right To Work is sending out thousands of petitions through direct mailings, and the Idaho Education Association has been distributing petition forms to its thousands of members and rallying its activists to help gather signatures. The member organizations of a loose progressive network called United Vision for Idaho, which includes churches and community-based social justice groups, have been lending a hand, and volunteers from union halls across the north are pounding the sidewalks of towns and villages dotting this remote landscape.