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November 8, 2012

The State Worker: Did move to rein in California unions backfire?

Did a handful of wealthy conservative interests set out to undermine California unions with a statewide ballot measure only to see it backfire?

Did a handful of wealthy conservative interests set out to undermine California unions with a statewide ballot measure only to see it backfire?

Fifty-six percent of voters in Tuesday's election rejected Proposition 32, which would have banned payroll-deducted money (essentially union dues) from state and local politicking. Unions brought Democratic voters out in force to oppose it.

In the process, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown's Proposition 30 tax measure won over 54 percent of the electorate. Coincidence?

The two measures' political symbiosis started last year when the governor signed a bill that moved all unscheduled 2012 propositions to November's ballot.

The law aimed to undercut anticipated GOP support for Proposition 32 on a June ballot, when proportionally more Republicans would turn out for the primaries. In blue California, Democrats turn out heavily in a general election for U.S. president.

Republican activists, including Charles Munger Jr., Jerry Perrenchio and some murky super PACs, gave a good chunk of the millions that supported the paycheck measure and opposed the tax increase.

"But they mistook gross firepower for effectiveness," said Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, who didn't work on either measure. At a certain point, the TV ads, the mailers and the robocalls that are business's political stock-in-trade are just noise.

Even worse for conservatives, Proposition 32 had spooked the unions. They worried the proposal would kneecap their political influence. So labor cranked up its fundraising machinery and contributed at least $66 million to defeat the paycheck measure and at least $22 million to support Brown's proposal.

The not-so-secret ingredient to organized labor's double win was that it spent money and organized to exert influence. Businesses, which are by nature competitive and not cooperative, don't organize as well.

Mike Genest, former GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's finance director, put it like this: "I respect unions as a democratic coalition the same way villagers respected Attila the Hun."

Proposition 32 sparked "an unprecedented ground game," California Labor Federation spokesman Steve Smith said in a Wednesday email statement, with 40,000 union volunteers making more than 3.7 million contacts and distributing 5.1 million fliers.

That primed a wave of voters against 32 – and for the tax hike. Smith called it "the Prop. 32 effect."

So what if 32 hadn't been on the ballot? Unions wouldn't have been as galvanized. Munger and others might not have given as generously to a hum-drum tax fight.

"Prop. 32 wasn't a mistake," said conservative blogger Jon Fleischman, predicting another measure will surface eventually in an effort to curb liberal influence on elections.

But this time around, it sure looks like Proposition 32 helped Proposition 30 succeed.

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