With all the other explosive issues facing the Rhode Island General Assembly such as same sex marriage and Governor Lincoln Chafee’s proposal to impose new regressive taxes in his fiscal 2012 budget, why did binding arbitration legislation for school teachers garner such an extraordinary amount of attention from the general public?
WPRO talk radio host John DePetro described it to me as “a great example of activism talk radio galvanizing citizens” to action. Speaker of the House Gordon Fox stated on the WPRI Newsmakers television program that the direct response from citizens and his office receiving more than 2,200 emails in the final days ultimately affected his decision not to go forward with the legislation.
The fact that citizens were able to influence the direction of the General Assembly in labor friendly Rhode Island should not be understated, especially with the intense lobbying efforts by organized labor to get the bill passed. DePetro characterized union leaders believing that passage of the legislation was a “slam dunk” in the House after its quick passage in the Senate.
Mr. DePetro said that he felt the issue was so important to the economic future of Rhode Island that he made a conscience decision to cover the topic extensively on his show; leading right up to the day Speaker Fox withdraw it from consideration on the House floor.
John attributed the vast attention to the power of talk radio and the ability of good government groups to work toward the focused goal of defeating it. Right away he said he jumped into action bringing representatives daily from the RI Tea Party, the Rhode Island State Wide Coalition (RISC), and political leaders such as Representatives Joe Trillo from Warwick who all denounced the legislation. DePetro says that he “used his show as a platform to culminate the message of all parties” into a singular call to action.
RISC and the Tea Party also deserve credit according to DePetro for the “highly effective use of building a data base of members and sending out daily email blasts getting people to jump into action”. He attributed the tremendous response to the fact that they provided easy methods to contract legislators through the use of electronic media and good old fashion contact via phone.
If this effort did not take place DePetro assured me binding arbitration legislation passage would have been “business as usual in the General Assembly”. He also credits Speaker Fox with realizing that this could have been a “death nail for him politically” if he supported it.
John believes these same tools could be used in the future to combat the highly effective tactics organized labor uses to promote their agenda in the State House and get people elected that support their pro-labor agenda. "Organized labor never anticipated the number of citizens who would take action against the bill" he claims and many of the tactics employed "were taken straight from the union play book and used against them to beat at their own game".
Now with the passage of Voter ID legislation, something no one expected, John says it will level the playing field even more, so that the good government groups stand a fighting chance in getting taxpayer friendly candidates elected in the future. Currently it is too easy he claims for a group to manipulate the voter list by directing people to participate fraudulently in targeted elections.
With the recent bankruptcy filing in Central Falls, John also believes that organized labor’s tactics will become more fierce on the issue of pension reform. "They will delay and fight to the bitter end any proposed reductions in retiree benefits" and he believes they will look to the General Assembly in the special fall session to pass legislation to bail out state and municipal pension plans ultimately at the cost of all Rhode Island taxpayers.
“One thing the retirees in Central Falls are finding, when you have a 12 percent unemployment rate, there is no sympathy for a guy that is 45 years old and he’s retired and he’s being forced to contribute to his healthcare”, according to John. People are telling him they feel empowered with the defeat of the binding arbitration bill, but he cautioned that they need to use that motivation to continue to stay active and organize more to influence legislators on the looming pension battle.
One thing that we can count on is that John and his talk show colleagues will continue with their Paul Revere type efforts to be the catalyst to focus us all on the singular call to action needed to force Rhode Island legislators to enact laws to bring the state back from the abyss of bankruptcy.
Robert Cushman (Cushmanr@cox.net) is a former Warwick City Councilman and former school committee Chairman.