SRO Tenants Defeat AT&T, Save LifeLine Phone Program

Low-income consumers save LifeLine from AT&T

The California State Senate Appropriations Committee voted last Friday against further action on AB 1407, the AT &T backed bill that would dramatically raise phone costs for 1.2 million low-income Californians. While the bill can be revived in 2014, it has hit a wall since tenants from the Central City SRO Collaborative (CCSRO) went to Sacramento to tell legislators personally about the importance of preserving LifeLine.

On July 8, AB 1407 passed a key Senate committee 6-1 and appeared on route to winning Senate support. But amidst growing opposition from a coalition of groups including TURN, the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Economic Survival, CREDO Mobile, and the CCSRO, momentum shifted against the measure. Here are three key reasons why this extraordinary David vs. Goliath victory occurred, and how its lessons apply to other struggles.

1.Beyond the Usual Suspects

A battle between low-income phone users and a telecommunications giant would appear to be an uneven political match. And that’s why opponents of AB 1407 had to go beyond the usual advocacy groups to win. In this case, opposition to the bill came from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer’s Association, unusual suspects have their own reasons. In this case, the taxpayer group wrote a letter to the bill’s sponsor on August 12 claiming AB 1407 would impose an “illegal tax” increase. Other anti-tax groups also opposed this proposed rise in phone costs.

In addition, CREDO Mobile went all out to defeat AB 1407 despite having many issues from which to choose to focus their advocacy. Overall, many groups and individuals got involved who are not the “usual suspects” regularly seen advocating for the poor.

2.Inside/Outside Strategies

Thanks to Mark Toney and TURN, grassroots groups mounted an effective outside campaign. And SRO tenants made this outside campaign visible by going to Sacramento, where it often makes a difference for legislators to hear from those directly impacted by bills.

But it took an unsung “insider” hero in combination with the grassroots groups. And in this case it was State Senator Mark Leno, who represents San Francisco’s SRO tenants and who worked behind the scenes to prevent the bill’s passage.

Leno is a close ally of Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, who serves on the Appropriations Committee. It was clear from the positive response SRO tenants got from talking to Steinberg’s staff that Leno had educated the Senate leader about the problems with AB 1407. This made a difference.

Having worked on Sacramento legislation for years, I cannot overestimate the importance of “inside” allies. For many years San Francisco had the great John Burton protecting the interests of the poor, and now Senator Mark Leno is continuing this role.

3. Publicizing the Bill

AB 1407 was on a fast track to passage because many did not know of its impacts. TURN and CREDO Mobile used their networks to spread the word, as did Larry Gross of the Coalition of Economic Survival.

But other than the Los Angeles Times, which provided excellent coverage, the rest of the state’s daily newspapers ignored AT&T’s stealth effort to raise phone rates on low-income Californians. The San Francisco Chronicle ignored the story altogether, even though those affected live within two blocks of its Fifth and Mission headquarters.

BeyondChron covered this story more than any other publication. Through tweets and emails, our stories spread, and they helped build opposition.

There are other sites like BeyondChron capable of publicizing unreported stories like AB 1407— and are two examples from Los Angeles—and activists need to turn to these sites rather than waiting in vain for larger outlets to do so. Activists should realize that these corporate owned newspapers are not in the business of promoting grassroots campaigns against powerful corporate interests, so even a great story on an issue is unlikely to get a follow-up.

In today’s world of new and social media, getting a story out somewhere that can then be retweeted, posted on Facebook, and emailed is key.

Only two months ago, few gave SRO tenants a chance against powerful AT&T. But once again, the combination of grassroots activism and the right strategies showed that big money interests can still be defeated.