Who Was That Fellow on the Train?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Did I see a unicorn? Or was that really a California petition circulator being paid hourly?

I was riding the Gold Line, one of the Metro trains in Los Angeles, in Little Tokyo with my son last month when I was approached by a petition circulator, carrying a clipboard full of statewide ballot initiatives.

The circulator was pushing two health care initiatives back by SEIU-UHW – one to cap what hospitals can charge, another to cap CEO salaries at nonprofit hospitals.

This was the first time I’d encountered a circulator on a train, and I engaged him in conversation. He said he often worked the train. Then I asked him, as I often do with circulators, what circulators were being paid per signature.

He rattled off prices for other measures, but on the health care initiatives, which he was working now, he said he was being paid, for the first time, by the hour.

If true, that’s new. Circulators in California have been paid by the signature since at least 1912. There have been efforts, mostly from labor, to require hourly pay – but that change has been fiercely opposed because it would add to the cost of qualifying. I asked him what he thought of it. He wasn’t positive; while the security of hourly pay was nice, he was good at what he did and thus made more money on a per signature basis. (He asked me not to name him)

Was the guy for real? If so, no one will confirm it to me. My phone calls to SEIU-UHW went unreturned.

If this is an experiment, as I suspect it might be, it would be important for the public at large to know the results. Direct democracy should be a public process; we all have a stake in improving it.

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