Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Prop 32 puts union power in the spotlight

California Unions have mobilized tens of thousands of members to phone voters to urge a no vote on Prop 32.
California Unions have mobilized tens of thousands of members to phone voters to urge a no vote on Prop 32.
Alice Walton

California allows unions and corporations to donate directly to a candidate for state or local office, or to a committee for that candidate.  Proposition 32 would ban the practice. It would also ban the use of union payroll deductions for political contributions. It’s that last part of the measure that has mobilized unions to fight the measure—and made it the most expensive proposition battle in this year’s election.

Former State Senator Gloria Romero is advocating for Prop 32. The L.A. Democrat says her seven years as majority leader opened her eyes to the power of special interest dollars. “I served in the legislature, I rose to a leadership position, I’ve sat in many of those backrooms," Romero recalls. "Basically, I’ve seen it all.”

What Romero saw was the political access money buys and how it can kill legislation.  Like the time she tried to pass a five-cent sales tax on beer to help fund trauma centers.

“My office was flooded with lobbyists from wine and alcohol," Romero says. "Let me just say that trauma care centers today, sadly, are still struggling to stay in existence.”

Romero says she also saw public employee unions stifle changes to sentencing reform and teacher evaluations. 

She says Democrats have been tied at the hip with California unions for too long and Prop 32 would break that bond.

The measure bans corporations and unions from contributing directly to the campaigns of state and local politicians.  It also bans both from using payroll deductions to make political donations.

“It says it’s about removing special interest money from elections. That seems like a noble goal,” says UC Berkeley professor Harley Shaiken, who specializes in labor issues. “What it is, is special interest money seeking to gut the power of unions in the political process.”

If it seems incongruous that corporations would support a measure that limits their influence, it’s because they, as well as unions, would still be able to contribute unlimited amounts of money through independent expenditures — spending that’s not coordinated directly with a candidate or a related committee. That’s how political action committees work.

Bob Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies, says Prop 32’s main effect is its ban on payroll deductions for political purposes — the main way unions raise money.  Stern believes without that practice, unions could see a 70 percent drop in funds.

“It will undercut their ability to participate in elections through money and really reduce the amount of money they’re able to take in from union members," Stern says.  "And obviously business interests are really very supportive of it.”

The nonpartisan political money tracker, MapLight, tallied nearly $60 million raised for the Yes on Prop 32 campaign. Most of that is from billionaire Charles T. Munger Jr.,  and Americans for Responsible Leadership. The Arizona non-profit’s $11 million donation is the focus of legal wrangling on whether the group is violating disclosure laws.

The California Teachers Association and other major unions have raised even more money — $68 million — to defeat Prop 32. Unions have also mobilized tens of thousands of members to call voters.

They frame Prop 32 as a choice between corporate interests and worker’s rights. Steve Williams, who heads the union for workers at the Metropolitan Water District, says that how he sees it:

“There are some corporations that take care of their employees, but…a lot of corporations do things for profit and it’s not for the good of their workers.  So that’s what we’re trying, to keep that balance, and not just turn middle class working conditions over to corporate America.”

Pollster Dan Schnur, with the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, says voters appear to be swayed by the “no” argument:

“Even while California voters do not like the idea of large amounts of special interest money in elections, they’re also buying into the opposition argument that this particular initiative doesn’t affect both sides of the debate equally.” 

The latest Field Poll has Prop 32 trailing by 16 points.