The Sacramento Bee, June 10, 2012
Labor unions and business interests have been quietly raising millions of dollars and testing campaign messages for months, girding for a brawl over a November ballot measure that could fundamentally shift political power in Sacramento.
Now, on the heels of an election that saw unions handed a major defeat last week in Wisconsin, the opposing camps in California soon will launch a campaign battle likely to consume $50 million or more in political spending.
"Unions have just two channels of influence," said Daniel J.B. Mitchell of the Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA, "collective bargaining and the political side, so this initiative is extremely important to them."
The measure, which has not yet received a proposition number, would ban both unions and corporations from contributing directly to candidates, although both sides could still freely spend money on their own independent efforts.
Another provision forbids both sides from using money gathered from payroll deductions for political purposes. It promises to gut the power of labor unions because they raise nearly all of their money for political and other purposes via payroll-deducted dues from their members' paychecks.
Corporations, by contrast, raise the bulk of their campaign money from donations given by top executives and drawn from company treasuries.
Last year, public-sector and general-trade unions contributed $2.7 million to California political candidates and causes, according to campaign finance tracker FollowTheMoney.org. Business interests, from the telecommunications industry and hospitals to computer firms and beer companies, gave $4.3 million.
"The public has got to read between the lines on this thing," said Ken Murch, chief negotiator and lobbyist for the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians. "The deception is that this levels the political playing field. It doesn't."
Proponents include conservatives such as former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and former Univision CEO Jerry Perenchio, who has given $250,000 to the measure. They contend it handcuffs business and labor interests equally by applying the same contribution limitations to both sides.
"This initiative is exclusively about the stranglehold that special interests have had over California's political system and whether voters are ready to demand reform," said Jake Suski, who speaks on behalf of the measure's supporters. The same business interests backed similar "paycheck protection" initiatives in 1998 and 2005 that didn't include language suggesting that corporations would be treated equally. Voters struck them down.
This time, proponents think the political headwinds have shifted, particularly after Tuesday's landslide votes for public pension reform measures that unions opposed in left-leaning San Jose and right-leaning San Diego.
"Voters are demanding reform and change," Suski said. "They're willing to do something, to say no to special interests."
Unions have been on the defensive in Wisconsin since Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation 17 months ago that curtailed public employee unions' bargaining rights and ended compulsory union membership. The law excluded cops and firefighters.
The controversial law left unions reeling. The Wall Street Journal reported that the number of members in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union in Wisconsin fell 45 percent from March 2011 to March 2012.
The unions mounted a recall campaign, pitting Walker against Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee. Walker's campaign spent more than $47 million, two-thirds of it from out-of-state donations. Barrett's union-backed campaign spent about $18 million.
On Tuesday, Walker won with 53 percent of the vote in a contest viewed nationally as a referendum on unions' clout.
But in California, those familiar with the details said that the Walker recall in Wisconsin wasn't a precursor of doom for labor in the Golden State.
Gubernatorial recall efforts have a much lower success rate than ballot initiatives. Some Wisconsin voters told reporters they voted for Walker because they felt the recall was inappropriate, regardless of their views on labor.
California is also dominated by Democrats in the Legislature and in every statewide office. The GOP has more power in Wisconsin.
While supporters of the California measure will tout it in coming months as necessary and even-handed campaign finance reform, the unions will argue that it hobbles labor's counterbalancing political role to business.
And rather than rely on that argument alone, labor groups plan to frame the proposition as an outgrowth of the power of the 1 percent, bankrolled by the wealthy to weaken everyone else.
"This is a self-service initiative written to create an exemption for self-serving businessmen," said Brian Brokaw, speaking for the labor coalition opposing the measure.
That will resonate with voters in California, a state considered more union-friendly than Wisconsin, said Mitchell, the UCLA professor: "It's a version of the old message, 'business versus the average Joe.' "
Ken Jacobs, a labor expert at UC Berkeley, said opponents also will work to frame the initiative as part of a larger attack on unions, and the middle-class values they espouse, that gained momentum with the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial Citizens United ruling. The 2010 decision found that corporations and unions have a right to spend unlimited money on political causes.
"This (initiative) is a serious threat to unions," Jacobs said, "It goes along with what we're seeing nationally."