Unions Fighting Two-Front War on California Ballots

This is the eighth in the Prospect's series on the 174 measures on state ballots this year.

It’s been a bad year for California unions. Republicans have never been fans of the labor movement, and now state Democratic support is waning. In September, Democratic Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a pension reform plan that will force union members to work longer for fewer benefits, and vetoed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, an AFL-CIO-backed bill that would have given labor rights to domestic workers. And earlier this month, Brown vetoed a bill that would have allowed child care workers to unionize. In cities like San Jose and Los Angeles—both Democrat-leaning cities with Democratic mayors—unions are fighting more losing battles against pension reform.

In this election, state unions were forced to open a new front—at the ballot box. California ballot Proposition 32 puts labor in even deeper trouble, and could leave the movement effectively silenced. And even if labor kills the measure, it will still come with huge costs to other campaigns in the state.

The language of Proposition 32 reads like even-handed, across-the-board election spending reform: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law and this title, no corporation, labor union, public employee labor union, government contractor, or government employer shall deduct from an employee's wages, earnings, or compensation any amount of money to be used for political purposes.”

Based on that wording, you might never know this measure gives corporations more power, by taking unions out of the game while leaving businesses to spend freely.

Deducting wages from members’ payrolls to support political causes is a common and long-standing practice with labor unions. It’s the only thing that gives them a chance when fighting against mammoth corporate power and political party machines. Corporations, on the other hand, don’t need to deduct from payrolls—it’s estimated that only about one percent of them do. The way the proposition is written, the corporate powers that be—investment funds, hedge firms, and real estate developers—would be exempt from the new policy, where unions would be cut off from one of their most valuable tools of influence, unable to counter the money spent by corporate and super PACs. This measure would do almost nothing to get money out of politics—it would only take money away from one side.

This isn’t the first attack on unions’ political spending to appear on a California ballot. Failed propositions 226 and 75, in 1998 and 2005, respectively, both sought to ban payroll deductions, and other states have passed bans on payroll deductions. But this is the first time the language has been so misleading; by adding corporations into the language, the measure might seem like nonpartisan campaign spending reform.

The Yes on 32 campaign has indeed represented itself as a pro-worker operation, promising to keep employers’ hands out of their pockets. “What Prop 32 does, is ensure that every worker, whether they are a teacher, state employee or work in the private sector, has control over how and whether their money is spent for politics,” wrote Yes on 32 spokesperson Jake Suski in an email.

But the Prop 32 supporters are hardly a mom-and-pop outfit. The Sacramento Bee recently reported that the Small Business Action Committee PAC, which supports 32, received $11 million from Arizona-based PAC Americans for Responsible Leadership, which is notoriously secretive about its donors. Another supporter, the California Future Fund, has ties to the Koch Brothers, and has put about $4 million into the campaign.

Meanwhile, the opposition to the measure has raised a total of over $66 million, mostly from unions—unions that, if the proposition passes, will have to find a way other than payroll deductions to compete with such powerful PACs. The Sacramento Bee, the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle have all endorsed No on 32, and the Democratic Party also supports No on 32. 

The Public Policy Institute of California’s most recent poll puts support for Proposition 32 at 39 percent, with 53 percent against and 7 percent undecided. Even if the proposition did pass though, there is still a huge question of whether it could be enacted legally. While Suski insists that “everything in Prop 32 has been tested and is Constitutional,” a document from the California Attorney General found on the Yes on 32 website notes that “It is possible that a federal or state court would prevent this measure from going into effect because it infringes upon various parties’ constitutionally protected freedom of speech.”

But whether or not the measure is enacted may not be the point. The effort to kill Prop 32 has forced most unions to limit their involvement with another crucial fight—funding education. The California Teachers Association (CTA) has led the way in donations to kill the anti-union measure, giving over $20 million to the cause. That’s double what the CTA has contributed to Prop 30, another crucial ballot measure in California that would enact a tax hike to ensure the state’s already-underfunded public schools don’t face more cuts. Unions are support that effort, but their funds and energy are dedicated first and foremost to defeating Prop 32—a dilemma that might just be an unhappy coincidence, but is probably one of the most clever strokes of conservative politics California has ever seen.

The anti-union and anti-tax campaigns have very close ties, and they’re both heavily funded by conservative billionaire Charles Munger. Munger’s support of the flailing Proposition 32 outs it as what it is—a very dangerous decoy. Munger and his supporters are betting on unions being so tied up with Prop 32 that they can defeat the tax measure—which is slipping in the polls—without a much of a fight. 

In any other election cycle, the move to raise taxes specifically for school funding would get the wholehearted attention of state unions. However, thanks to Proposition 32, that campaign has had to get by with $10 million from the CTA, instead of the $30 million that would have conceivably been donated had Prop 32 not been in the way to suck up funds.

That means, regardless of which propositions pass or fail in November, California unions—and students—are losing big time in this election at the hands of corporate spending. Whether it’s by law or by billionaire’s red herring, this election could be remembered as the time unions were silenced in the Golden State. 

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