Billionaire corporate interests and other well financed anti-labor forces are waging a major drive to stifle the political voice of workers and their unions in California that is certain to spread nationwide if not stopped – and stopped now.
At issue is a highly deceptive measure, Proposition 32, on the state's November election ballot, that its anti-labor sponsors label as an even-handed attempt to limit campaign spending. But actually, it would limit – and severely – only the spending of unions, while leaving corporations and other moneyed special interests free to spend as much as they like.
Unions would be prohibited from making political contributions with money collected from voluntary paycheck deductions authorized by their members, which is the main source of union political funds.
But there would be no limits on corporations, whose political funds come from their profits, their customers or suppliers and the contributions of corporate executives. Nor would there be any limit on the political spending of the executives or any other wealthy individuals. What's more, corporate special interests and billionaires could still give unlimited millions to secretive "Super PACs" that can raise unlimited amounts of money anonymously to finance their political campaigns.
The proposition would have a "devastating impact" on unions, notes Professor John Logan, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University. As he says, it would likely all but eliminate political spending by unions while greatly increasing political spending by business interests and wealthy individuals.
Anti-labor interests are already outspending unions nationwide by a ratio of more than $15 for every $1 spent by unions. Between 2000 and 2011, that amounted to $700 million spent by anti-labor forces, while unions spent just a little more than $284 million.
Proposition 32 would even restrict unions in their communications with their own members on political issues. That's because money raised by payroll deductions pays for the preparation and mailing of communications to union members, including political materials.
Unfortunately, there's even more – much more –to Proposition 32. It also would prohibit unions from making contributions to political parties and defines public employee unions as "government contractors" that would be forbidden from attempting to influence any government agency with whom they have a contract.
That restriction applies not only to unions. It also would cover political action committees established by any membership organization, "any agency or employee representation committee or plan," such as those seeking stronger civil rights or environmental protections.
Proposition 32 seeks to weaken, that is, any membership group which might seek reforms opposed by wealthy individuals or corporations and their Republican allies. It's no wonder the measure is actively opposed, not only by organized labor, but also by the country's leading good-government groups, including Common Cause and the League of Women Voters.
Yet the proposition's sponsors have the incredible gall to bill their measure as genuine campaign finance reform. They obviously hope that claim, which Common Cause accurately describes as a "laughable deception," will win over the many voters who have been demanding reforms and who, in their eagerness, will fail to recognize the measure's true nature.
"This is not genuine campaign finance reform," as San Francisco State's John Logan says, "but a bill of rights for billionaires."
The losers would include teachers, nurses, police, firefighters and other union members and those who benefit from the essential services they provide – students, the elderly, and the ailing, the poverty stricken, those who work and live in unsafe conditions and other needy citizens, and consumers, environmentalists and others who also are neglected by the profit-chasing corporate interests that dominate political and economic life.
Make no mistake: Lots of money is being funneled into the Proposition 32 campaign by some of the same wealthy backers who bankrolled such anti-labor efforts as the campaign that blocked the massive attempt to recall virulently anti-labor GOP Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin this year.
Should the anti-union forces also prevail, it will undoubtedly lead to what Logan says "will promote a tsunami of ballot initiatives in 2013 at the local level and in 2014 at the state level designed to drive down working conditions in both the public and private sectors."
Logan adds, "Lacking the ability to oppose these reactionary measures under the new election rules, California's workers could soon face the weakest labor standards in the country". But if the measure is rejected, it "may slow the momentum behind other attempts to increase the corrosive impact of money in politics."
It's true that some states already have laws and regulations seriously limiting labor's influence. But it's certain that victory by the anti-labor forces in California will slow any attempts at reform in other states and lead as well to attempts to impose anti-union measures elsewhere, as well as expanding those that already exist.
The stakes are huge. If the 1 percent have their way in California, the country's largest state, other states are certain to follow.
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based columnist who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.