One spring day in Wisconsin last year, as a bustling crowd of Madison teachers got ready to march on the Capitol to protest Governor Scott Walker's bill to dismantle public sector unions, the march was led by an unusual team -- a group of African Americans wearing dark shades, snazzy berets, blue uniforms, and taps on their shoes. They were the International Longshore and Warehouse Union's drill team, all the way from California showing their support for Wisconsin's working families. The tradition dates back to the union's founding in the 1930s.
Now those same ILWU workers, who load and unload ships along the California coastline, are under attack.
The fight to dismantle America's unions has moved from Wisconsin to California. This time, billionaires and big business are attempting to use California's referendum mechanism to bar all unions from using money deducted from employee paychecks for political purposes.
The idea -- called "paycheck protection" by proponents and "paycheck deception" by opponents -- is an old one. It has been kicking around as an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) "model bill" since 1998, the same year the measure was first put on the California ballot (and failed).
But with some $43 million being spent by unions, and election day still four weeks away, the current life and death battle for the right to organize a union may dwarf all that came before.
"Evenhanded" Measure Will Eviscerate Labor
The ballot proposition, Prop. 32, has four primary provisions. It: 1. bans both corporate and labor union contributions to candidates; 2. prohibits government contractors from contributing money to government officials who award them contracts; 3. prohibits corporations and labor unions from collecting political funds from employees and union members using the inherently coercive means of payroll deduction; and 4. makes all employee political contributions by any other means strictly voluntary.
While the language is made to sound evenhanded, the measure is a thinly veiled attack on the only institution that systematically collects its funding via payroll deduction -- unions. You can ban churches and liquor stores from collecting contributions in little baskets, but when only one entity does it, only one entity is going to be wiped out.
"This is intended not to hobble us, this is intended to eviscerate us," Art Pulaski, the head of the California Labor Federation, told the New York Times. "If they can do it in California, they can do it everywhere and anywhere."
Pulaski is not exaggerating. When Wisconsin prohibited the government from withholding union dues in March of 2011, the largest teachers union affiliated with the National Education Association immediately laid off 40 percent of its staff. Membership in the American Federation of City County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents a diversity of lower income workers, dropped by half.
California unions have survived two previous attempts to implement paycheck protection by referendum, in 1998 and in 2005. Those measures failed in the state, which is overwhelmingly Democratic. But this time around, proponents have rebranded the measure, spinning it as a type of "campaign finance reform" intended to crack down on the special interests and the "fat-cats lobbyist." This could be a compelling narrative for a low-information voter reading the language of the proposition at the ballot box for the first time.
Proponents: Cracking Down on Country Club Fundraisers "Wine Tastings and Cigar Smokers"?
The measure is titled "Stop Special Interest Money Now" Act, and some of the language supporting the proposition that appears in an official voter guide sounds like it came right from the good government groups like Common Cause that have been battling for disclosure and public financing for years.
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: Giving multi-million dollar tax loopholes to big developers, wealthy movie producers and out-of-state corporations; exempting contributors from the state's environmental rules; handing out sweetheart pension deals for government workers; protecting funding for wasteful programs like the high-speed train to nowhere, even as they are cutting funds for schools and law enforcement while proposing higher taxes.
But Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen, and other nonpartisan campaign finance reform groups are strongly opposed to this referendum and consider it a wolf in sheep's clothing.
Opponents: "Attack on Labor Masquerading as Campaign Finance Reform"
This is because the language was not only crafted by the Lincoln Club of Orange County, the GOP fundraising powerhouse that played a role in the Citizens United decision, but the measure is riddled with loopholes for corporations. It exempts common business structures such as LLCs, partnerships and real estate trusts and cannot prohibit millionaire and billionaire CEOs or hedge fund managers from making millions in campaign contributions through the many avenues available to them.
California's official voter guide attempts to put an end to the fantasy that the measure would reduce the number of ads on TV or clean up a corrupt campaign financing system.
Business Super PACs and independent expenditure committees are exempt from Prop. 32's controls...A recent Supreme Court decision allows these groups to spend unlimited amounts of money. Prop. 32 does nothing to deal with that. If Prop. 32 passes, Super PACs, including committees backed by corporate special interests, will become the major way campaigns are funded. These groups have already spent more than $95,000,000 in California elections since 2004. Our televisions will be flooded with even more negative advertisements.
In reality, corporations outspend labor unions in politics by an average of 15-1, according to Open Secrets. With the organized voice of working families out of the picture, there will be no voice to counter the agenda of big business in the workplace or in American politics.
Follow the Money
California's teachers, firefighters, nurses, engineers, cops, prison guards, and longshoremen are all mobilizing. Unions have raised about $43 million to educate voters and fight the proposition while proponents have raised about $18 million to defend it, but their primary job is done. Just getting the measure on the ballot provides a huge advantage.
The New York Times has reported that a chunk of the proposition's financial support comes from the American Future Fund, "an organization with ties to the donor network spearheaded by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire industrialists who have contributed heavily to defeating President Obama and were big backers of Scott Walker." American Future Fund has kicked in at least $4 million.
Another chunk of support comes from the billionaire backers of a failed effort to privatize California's public schools through school vouchers and other schemes.
But the biggest single contributor to the Prop. 32 efforts is Charles Munger Jr., the son of one of the co-founders of Berkshire Hathaway Investment firm. New filings today in California show that Munger's contributions to groups supporting the proposition have jumped from about $5 million to $10 million.
The spending of these billionaire businessmen would not be affected by Prop. 32.
Many Voters Undecided
Recent polling from UC Berkeley shows 18 percent of voters undecided. Even if unions win this race, the fight has decimated union treasuries and forced labor to divert money in an attempt to head off nearly $6 billion in new cuts in state spending. The measure could also limit labor's power at a time when tanking state budgets have put pressure on lawmakers to curb pension benefits for public employees.
While Walker's collective bargaining bill has been halted for now by a recent court ruling, Prop. 32 grinds on. Win or lose, unions in both states will be playing defense for years to come.