LOS ANGELES (AP) — A national effort to cripple organized labor has crossed into California as voters Tuesday consider a ban on the way unions have traditionally raised money for political causes.
Following up on recent efforts to dilute the strength of unions in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere, business interests and wealthy Republicans have contributed tens of millions of dollars to pass Proposition 32. California's major labor groups have responded with equal force, spending at least $75 million to defeat it.
Supporters describe Proposition 32 as a cure-all for special-interest politics by prohibiting corporations and unions from collecting money for state political activities from employees or members through paycheck deductions. But it would hit unions the hardest because corporations do not typically deduct money from employee pay for state political activities and because there are few unionized employees left in the private sector.
The initiative would prohibit unions and corporations from making donations directly to state candidates but would not stop corporations, the wealthy or unions from spending unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns through so-called independent expenditure committees. Yet because unions would have a much harder time raising money, the political playing field would be tilted heavily in favor of corporations and rich individuals.
Overall, there are about 2.4 million union members in California, and the money collected from them has helped make teachers, prison guards and nurses among the most powerful interest groups in Sacramento. They overwhelmingly support Democrats, who control both chambers of the Legislature and every statewide office.
Labor leaders are asking California voter to reject an initiative they say would silence workers. Voters rejected similar ballot questions in 2005 and 1998.
The California Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers union, has led the charge against Proposition 32.
A number of committees have been formed to support it. More than $4 million has come from the American Future Fund, an Iowa-based organization that supports conservative causes with ties to billionaires Charles and David Koch, who have provided crucial support to the tea party.
Other prominent supporters include Stanford physicist Charles Munger Jr., the son of billionaire Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Vice Chairman Charles Munger, who has donated more than $10 million, and former Univision chief executive Jerry Perenchio, a frequent Republican donor, who has given $800,000.
Some of the contributions have been mysterious. The Fair Political Practices Commission filed a successful lawsuit seeking the records of the Phoenix-based Americans for Responsible Leadership after the group made an $11 million contribution to the Small Business Action Committee PAC. The political action committee is supporting a dual campaign to pass Proposition 32 and defeat Gov. Jerry Brown's November tax initiative.
The lawsuit revealed that a secondary group, again with ties to the Koch brothers, was behind some of the out-of-state money.
Across the country, government workers have been facing political pressure to roll back pension and retiree health care benefits that in many cases are much more generous than those received by their private-sector counterparts and are straining state and municipal budgets.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a right-to-work law in February banning unions from collecting mandatory fees for representation, and labor suffered a defeat in Wisconsin earlier this year when Republican Gov. Scott Walker defeated a recall challenge following his push to limit collective bargaining rights for most public workers.
Even without Proposition 32, California has put unions on the defensive, as well.
In June, voters in San Diego and San Jose overwhelmingly approved reduced retirement benefits for city workers. This fall, Gov. Jerry Brown persuaded Democratic lawmakers to pass pension reductions that will apply to new state and local government workers.