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Bellingham Voters Secure Two WINS!

Last week, Bellingham Voters approved a ban on the use of facial recognition and predictive policing technologies by our City by a 14% margin, and overwhelmingly approved a ban on the use of city funds by employers for anti-union purposes with 63% of the vote. Initiative 2 and 3 were two resounding victories for us, out of the four progressive initiatives we brought to the ballot this election cycle. Voters sent us back to the drawing board on Initiatives 1 and 4.

We collected over 9,000 signatures for each of the four proposed laws (over 36,000 total), overcoming the odds of signature-gathering during a global pandemic and meeting the unusually high threshold of signatures then required by Bellingham in order to place people’s legislation on the ballot.

Initiative 2 will prohibit the city from acquiring or using facial recognition technology, or contracting with a third party to use facial recognition and predictive policing technologies on its behalf. It will also prohibit the retention of that unlawfully acquired data, and the unlawful use of that data in court as evidence.

“Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Queer and LGBT, and Immigrant members of our community; local activists, organizers, and journalists will all be better protected with a ban on these invasive technologies. Clearview and other corporations have continued to amass huge troves of our personal data, and to build ever-scarier and creepier tools. It’s heartening to see that Bellingham voters understand this, and have voted to reign in the civil rights violating practices that are inherent to this kind of tech being employed against us in our daily lives,” says People First Bellingham organizer, Maya Morales.

Bellingham joins a growing list of jurisdictions which have enacted facial recognition bans. The bipartisan King County Council unanimously approved a ban in June, and the European Union is exploring bans on all forms of predictive policing and facial recognition technology, including the use of these by big tech companies. 
Jennifer Lee, Technology and Liberty Project Manager for the ACLU of Washington, which endorsed Initiative 2, had this to say: “The success of Initiative 2 is a huge win for the people of Bellingham. They join twenty-two other jurisdictions in enacting bans on invasive policing technologies. Facial recognition and predictive policing tools are biased, inaccurate, and lead to life-or-death encounters with law enforcement. They also chill our democratic rights. Now, it's time for a federal ban on government use of facial recognition and predictive policing tools to protect everyone's civil rights and civil liberties.” Jen helped argue for initiative 2 alongside Maya as part of the League of Women voters forum, and the ALCU’s policy team also reviewed our voter pamphlet drafts on initiative 2 for accuracy and legality.

With the passage of Initiative 3 by a whopping 63% of the vote, Bellingham voters have approved a ban on the use of city funds for anti-union and worker organizing purposes. Employers who receive city funds and decide to pursue anti-union activities will now be required to account for and segregate those funds.

Betsy Pernotto, of Whatcom County Jobs With Justice, says “Bellingham voters overwhelmingly decided that workers won't have their tax money used against them to fight union organizing. This is a big win for workers--it shows that our community believes workers can decide for themselves if they want a union.” 
This win could not be more timely! Significant numbers of workers are organizing and mobilizing for better working conditions and better jobs all over the country. The global coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the stark disparity between the huge profits large corporations are making, versus the pay, benefits, and working conditions of their workers. Most workers on the frontlines of this emergency have been expected to sacrifice and suffer. The great news about this victory at the ballot box is that it's a clear signal to local workers: there is significant support in Bellingham for organized labor, and that support likely transcends political party lines.

Bellingham City Council adopted a formal resolution urging voters to vote “no” on all four initiatives the day before ballots were mailed. It was a big shock to many voters in the community, and had an outsized influence, not only on voter turnout among particular demographics, but also the higher number of votes opposing initiatives 1 and 4.

But, in spite of City council’s opposition, and the fact that the majority of the voter turnout in this election was made up of voters ages 55 and up, Initiative 1 lost by a mere 1.3% – or 368 votes out of 29,194 total votes. Initiative 1 would have increased notice required for rent raises over 5% as well as for no cause evictions to 90 days, and would have required certain landlords to provide rental relocation assistance for renters when raising their rent by 8% or more.

In order to move forward as a community that protects renters, who make up roughly 54% of Bellingham's residents, Tara Villalba of the Bellingham Tenants Union asserts, “We will make sure that our City Council doesn't sidestep the issue that this popular initiative was meant to address. Tenants are being displaced because of unchecked rent raises, even as we're still in a pandemic. Tenants must be part of making the solution to this rent gouging problem. City Council must protect not just the landlords in our community, but the tenants who actually pay the rent that pays for their landlord's mortgages.”

“It’s time to join Portland and Seattle in passing strong renter relocation assistance protections and more notice for rent increases -- and we can’t accept a watered down version from council that exempts half of the landlords in Bellingham. In fact, it’s time to pass an expansive tenant’s bill of rights to keep our community housed. As workers, we make Bellingham what it is and it’s past time to legislate the protections to keep us from being priced out of our city.” Sage Jones, People First Bellingham organizer from Whatcom DSA, added.

For the past 19 months, we have relied upon low-wage workers on the front-lines of this pandemic to provide services and goods, while working in potentially deadly conditions. Let's remember that the majority of people under the age of 55 have only had access to vaccines for the past seven (or less) of those nineteen months. Initiative 4 re-centered the conversation on worker’s rights and the need for fair employment conditions in Bellingham. Even though Initiative 4 didn’t pass, we still need to secure expanded rights and protections for workers before we are hit with the next emergency that puts workers at risk. People First Bellingham has every intention of winning this fight, and we hope you’re ready to do that with us!

Initiative 4 would have required the implementation of fair scheduling practices – giving workers greater power in accessing secure and predictable scheduling – and hazard pay for on-site workers during declared states of emergency that impact Bellingham directly. While the hazard pay section was clearly intended to apply to on-site workers not able to work remotely, false information and mischaracterizations of the initiative were spread by opponents, which included not just City Council, but The Chamber of Commerce; smaller businesses not included in the “under 30 employees” exception to number 4’s hazard pay section; and unknown entities hiding behind nearly $200,000 of corporate PAC monies from outside of Bellingham. Voters received multiple mailers, an expensive push-poll, and social media ads from the opponents of Initiative 4. Meanwhile, People First Bellingham sent out one mailer, and in spite of following the application steps meticulously, was not approved to use Facebook and Instagram Ads for our campaign, without any explanation from Facebook.

Sam Wambold, People First Bellingham organizer, reflects on Initiative 4: "This campaign has only reaffirmed our conviction that Bellingham must do more to protect workers. We heard from so many workers about poor working conditions, unexpected schedule changes, abrupt loss of compensation, and a lack of increased pay to compensate for working in dangerous conditions. We're going to keep fighting for workers. We want to make Bellingham livable for all!”

Bellingham’s economy is built on low-wage workers, yet housing and cost of living have continued to skyrocket. Workers need Bellingham City Council, and the broader business community, to participate in these conversations. We need them to work with us to create a Bellingham where all of our workers are cared for, and everyone has all that they need to thrive, not just survive.

By a ten percent margin, voters also approved a proposition halving the signature requirement for future people’s initiatives, to align Bellingham with the norm in other WA cities, including Seattle and Tacoma.

People First Bellingham offers thanks to all of our coalition partners and our endorsers who have supported the vision and/or the work of this historic campaign to create a people’s Bellingham!

Initiative 1-4 Endorsements: Whatcom County Jobs With Justice, Imagine No Kages (INK), Whatcom DSA, Whatcom Peace and Justice Center, Whatcom Human Rights Task Force, Sunrise Bellingham, Bellingham Unity Committee, Riveters Collective, Bellingham Tenants Union, Whatcom Democrats, Democratic Socialists of America, Washington Poor People's Campaign – A National Call for Moral Revival, Our Revolution WA

Initiative 1 Endorsement: Lummi Indian Business Council

Initiative 2 Endorsement: ACLU of Washington

Together, we’ve built power, we’ve achieved two major wins, and we’ve made history!

Thank you all for doing and supporting this work.

Let’s continue, and win, this fight together!