A union-busting proposition

November 1, 2012

The right-wing campaign to pass Prop 32 depends on dressing up an anti-worker measure as a way to fight the influence of money on elections, explains Alex Schmaus.

WHEN CALIFORNIA residents head to the polls on Election Day, they will vote on a ballot measure aimed at silencing the political voice of organized labor. If passed, Proposition 32 would prohibit unions from using payroll-deducted funds for political purposes.

Big business and wealthy Republican big shots have poured millions into the campaign to pass Proposition 32, but they've also been careful to dress up this nakedly anti-worker legislation with populist rhetoric in order to conceal the motivations of its chief backers.

Proposition 32 is known as the "Stop Special Interest Money Now Act," as if the aim of the law is some form of campaign finance reform--which is why Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzick has attacked the measure as "the fraud to end all frauds."

Needless to say, labor leaders have been sounding the alarm about the threat posed by Proposition 32. "Everything we've won by standing together, Prop 32 threatens to take away," wrote California Labor Federation leader Art Pulaski. "They've written Prop 32 to restrict unions while including every special exemption you can imagine for corporations, Wall Street, insurance companies, real estate developers and other corporate special interests."

California Teamsters campaign against the union-busting Proposition 32
California Teamsters campaign against the union-busting Proposition 32

California's organized labor movement has a proud tradition of taking political action. From the San Francisco general strike of 1934 to strikes by longshore workers against the Iraq war, against capital punishment and in support of the Occupy movement, workers are strengthened when their workplace struggles are backed up by political demands.

In the San Joaquin Valley, where Filipino and Mexican farmworkers first formed the United Farm Workers to strike table grape growers in 1965, the labor movement followed up with a national campaign of grape boycotts. And in 1946, a strike by downtown Oakland department store clerks, most of them women, sparked the last citywide general strike in the U.S.

State legislation enacted in the late 1970s conceded collective-bargaining rights to public-sector workers--a big reason why union density in California remains at 17 percent, higher than the national average.

THE CAMPAIGN for Proposition 32 is funded by organizations associated with the same billionaire brothers behind union-busting legislation that last year swept through a number of midwestern states.

Charles and David Koch, notorious for their support of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's drive to strip Wisconsin public employees of their collective bargaining rights, contributed $4 million to the Prop 32 campaign through the Iowa-based American Future Fund on September 14.

More recently, the mysterious Arizona-based Americans for Responsible Leadership, which may also be associated with the Koch brothers, contributed another $11 million. Republican billionaires from across California are also contributing funds. Charles Munger Jr., the son of Warren Buffet's business partner, has contributed more than $16 million to efforts to pass the measure.

California unions defeated similar ballot measures twice before--in 1998 and 2005--by outspending opponents, and they appear to be on track for a three-peat. As of October 24, donations to the union-backed campaign to defeat Prop 32 totaled $61 million, while business-backed Proposition 32 donations totaled $33 million.

However, this time around poses new problems because Proposition 32 is deceptively written to appear as campaign finance reform. The argument in favor of Prop 32 in California's official voter guide asks voters to "cut the money tie between special interests and politicians," including this choice piece of populist fakery:

Politicians hold big-ticket, lavish fundraisers at country clubs, wine tastings and cigar smokers. Fat-cat lobbyists attend these fundraisers and hand over tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions. Most happen when hundreds of bills are up for votes, allowing politicians and special interests to trade favors.

Sounds good, right? But the deception is that Proposition 32 would not, in fact, take money out of politics. "Proposition 32 is only posing as campaign finance reform," said Julien Ball, a San Francisco organizer with union-backed Alliance for a Better California. "It's really campaign finance reform in reverse because it applies only to workers and not the wealthy or corporations."

Proposition 32 would prohibit both unions and corporations from using payroll-deducted funds for political purposes, but only unions use payroll deduction for such purposes. Furthermore, business organizations (such as limited liability companies and limited partnerships), wealthy individuals and secretive Super PACs are all exempt from Proposition 32.

PROP 32 may be designed to deceive voters, but nationally, prominent Republican politicians have made it abundantly clear what they think about workers' political voice in California.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has taken to mocking the state. Speaking in Iowa in September, Romney reportedly said, "America is going to become like Greece or like Spain or Italy, or like California--just kidding about that one, in some ways."

Workers in Greece, Spain and Italy have mobilized on a massive basis to protest government austerity measures in recent years, and, along with Portuguese workers, are planning simultaneous general strikes for November 14. Romney's joke about California is seemingly intended to raise the specter of similar class conflict in the U.S.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been even more clear about his views on California. "We've just given California away to the public-sector unions," Christie reportedly said while headlining the California delegation breakfast at the Republican National Convention in August.

California workers and their unions, however, have not mobilized on the scale of recent struggles in southern Europe, and they certainly do not run California. In fact, it's Corporate America and the mega-rich who have an outsized voice. Nationally, business interests outdo unions in political spending at a ratio of 15-to-1, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In California, the political spending gap is not as wide, but business interests still spend much more. Business interests have spent $1.7 billion on California campaigns since 2000, while unions have spent $507 million, a ratio of more than 3-to-1, according to California Common Sense.

Besides, political spending statistics are only one small part of the story. For the most part, unions donate to candidates and campaigns endorsed by the Democratic Party. But while California Democrats hold all statewide offices and maintain majorities in both houses of the state legislature, they have not delivered on any of the labor movement's key issues.

The Democrats have passed severe austerity budgets that impose deep cuts on education, public health and other anti-poverty spending while simultaneously pushing through pay cuts and layoffs for state workers. Moreover, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed several union-backed bills in early October.

The vetoed legislation would have mandated such "radical" measures as overtime pay and meal breaks for domestic workers, access to cool water and shade for farmworkers, and union recognition for research assistants at the University of California.

What's worse, Brown and the Democrats have also taken aim at public sector workers' pensions. They passed pension reform in September that raised most new workers' retirement age from 55 to 67, capped annual payouts at $132,120 and mandated that 50 percent of pension funds must be paid out of workers' salaries. Thus, it should be clear that California unions do not have much influence with their party of choice.

So while it's important to defeat Prop 32 in order to preserve the basic right of unions to take political action, it also must be said that it's long past time for labor leaders to abandon their bankrupt strategy of giving millions to Democrats while the Democrats give them worse than nothing in return.

The stakes in this battle are significant. According to Ball, approval of the measure could mark "the first step toward California becoming a right-to-work state where workers have to choose individually to join any collective-bargaining agreement."

However, if voters in the most populous state in the nation reject Proposition 32, they would win an important symbolic victory and send a message to right-wing business interests everywhere. A Public Policy Institute of California poll released October 24 found that 53 percent of likely voters were prepared to vote no on the measure, but now is not the time for complacency.

The need to mobilize the largest possible vote against Proposition 32 is reason enough for supporters of workers' rights, unionists, radicals and revolutionaries alike to head to the polls November 6.

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