November's Ground Zero Initiative

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The November election could feature a slugfest over an initiative focused on money in politics. (Photo: Getty/David McNew)

While talk about California's November ballot has focused largely on tax proposals or possible social and criminal justice measures, watch for the real political slugfest to be over an issue near and dear to the hearts of organized labor: union dues deducted from members' paychecks.

And the size of that slugfest may play a large role in determining the fate of other measures -- including Governor Jerry Brown's pitch for higher taxes.

The official title of the initiative (PDF), which qualified last month: "Prohibits Political Contributions by Payroll Deduction. Prohibitions on Contributions to Candidates."

But it's the first three sentences of the measure's official ballot summary that, in the eyes of its opponents, begin to tell the tale:

Restricts union political fundraising by prohibiting use of payroll-deducted funds for political purposes. Same use restriction would apply to payroll deductions, if any, by corporations or government contractors. Permits voluntary employee contributions to employer or union committees if authorized yearly, in writing.

As such, labor unions have hailed this as round three of a ballot initiative war known as "paycheck protection." Twice before, in 1998 and in 2005, conservative groups qualified initiatives that would have placed significant new rules on union dues being used for political activities. And twice before, after long and expensive campaigns, labor groups persuaded voters to say no.

But as the campaign team behind the new proposal points out, this measure specifically states that it applies the paycheck deduction rules to not just unions but also corporations. It also bans contributions from business and labor to candidate-controlled campaign accounts, something else not seen in the previous two initiatives.

Those items should be duly noted. But so, too, should the reality that paycheck deductions are a rare or non-existent weapon in the arsenal of corporations, whereas as they are just about the only weapon of organized labor. And while the initiative would turn off the spigot of contributions to, say, Joe Smith's Assembly campaign account, it would not staunch the flow of millions of dollars funneled to independent expenditure (IE) committees -- except when it comes to IE spending by labor unions which, again, is financed through union dues.

(It should be pointed out that the language of the measure says union dues can be used for political spending, as long as it's done with the dues paying member's permission -- an exception that opponents say would, in practical terms, isn't much of one. Expect to hear this point debated loudly, and often.)

All of that helps explain why the labor forces are gearing up for another big battle. Their campaign committee, the Alliance for a Better California, continues to take in money from a consortium of unions -- a total that's now close to $1.3 million. Leading donors so far include the American Federation of State County & Municipal Employees, the California Teachers Association (CTA), the California Professional Firefighters, and more.

The opposition campaign will be led by Democratic consultant Gale Kaufman, the CTA's long-time political advisor and the architect of the campaigns that defeated the similar initiatives on the 1998 and 2005 ballots (the latter being part of the union smackdown against Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's special election).

The campaign to pass what's being billed as the Stop Special Interest Money Now initiative raised more than $1.8 million since early 2011 in support of the measure, but most of that -- about $1.4 million -- was spent just to get it on the ballot. Large contributions in that effort came from Republican activist (and redistricting advocate) Charles T. Munger, Jr. and commercial laundry scion/real estate developer William Bloomfield, Jr. (the latter having also been a big contributor to Schwarzenegger through the years).

But here's where the chess game gets interesting. Players across California's political spectrum know that killing the initiative is organized labor's top 2012 priority. And while sizable donations in support of the measure haven't yet materialized, union groups are preparing for their worst case scenario. That may mean, say observers, fewer dollars that the unions can spend helping Governor Brown qualify and pass his $7 billion tax increase initiative. It also could complicate labor's desire to help elect preferred candidates to the Legislature -- in a year where the elusive Democratic supermajority of the two houses is in sight.

The other potential strategy from the union side: qualify an initiative (or initiatives) for the November ballot that are as equally distasteful to big business -- say, additional limits on corporate political spending (PDF) or a revision of Proposition 13 to allow higher taxation of business property (PDF). Those two initiatives will be cleared for signature gathering soon, and seem to be clear signs from labor unions that if the business world doesn't want to fight, then it shouldn't open its wallet in support of the paycheck deduction initiative.

The Berkeley-based campaign finance tracking organization Maplight released a new search tool this past week that helps show how much political money is on the line with just this one initiative. Their new webpage on company donations to legislators (and the nexus with bills passed) since 2009 shows most of those companies are, in fact, organized labor. Eight of the top 10 entities listed are unions.

Keep an eye out for money moves in the next few weeks to see whether the conservative and liberal powerhouses of the state are lining up for battle over this initiative. If they are, expect the ripple to be felt up and down the political spectrum... and prepare for a slugfest over the issues of money in politics and corporate-vs.-union influence on elected officials in Sacramento.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Lee Hauser

    And you ask why belonging to a union is so great.  Union members should have a choice where their dues goes.  The unions dictate and demand their members vote democratic or else they are threatened.  This bill gives them the right they deserve.  You might not know but the budget for California is 40% for union pensions and benefits.  That’s a huge amount for us or any state to handle.  This is the reason so many people object to unions.  You might have noticed they are huge supporters of Obama and single handly put Brown in office.  So folks when you are asked to vote for higher taxes or California will have to declare bankruptsy don’t fall for the threats. We definately need to clean house in Sacramento and recall Brown.  We don’t need a high speed train that will cost each and everyone of the taxpayers billions to complete.  Don’t fall for the threats Brown is trying to sell.  We need jobs.  Families are fleeing and you’d have to be crazy to start a business here.  Regulations make it impossible.  Wake up folks.  Tell Brown no to new taxes.

  • Speech85

    Look, do the Unions support candidates that I peronally would prefer to see elected 100% of the time?  No, they don’t.  On the other hand, most people don’t have the kind of dough to throw at politics that Wall Street does and so if we want Wall Street to control our politics 100% (and that worked really well for us thus far, hasn’t it?) we need the unions.  Incidentally, if only 40% of government is going to overhead, then government is way, way more efficient than private business where 90-85% goes to overhead.

  • Anonymous

    Who the hell is “Wall Street” Mr. Speech85? Have you thought this through? “Wall Street” ought to refer to the financial sector, not companies who compete to produce products that make our lives better – products we don’t have to buy if we don’t want to. So what is the financial sector, Mr. Speech85? Could it be the brokerages who write all the loans and collect all the fees when California’s state and local governments spend more than they take in and have to borrow money to stay afloat? No vested interest there in shrinking government. Or what about the investors who run hedge funds and equity firms, who are collecting hundreds of billions of dollars every year from public employee pension funds? Did you know that public employee pension funds are the biggest players, by far, on “Wall Street?”

    When you compare these unions to “Wall Street,” think about it. Big labor, big government and big finance are in cahoots. They are united in their desire to increase taxes, drive out small competitive new businesses, and increase government spending and borrowing. Union supported candidates stand for more money for government workers, more benefits for government workers, higher taxes, and more government borrowing. And “Wall Street” is a willing partner in these shenanigans. Wake up.

  • Speech85

    Actually, that’s Mrs Speech85 :).  Actually, by Wall Street I meant not just the financial services organizations but big corporations.  Including (for example) news organizations like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.  These are the people (and according to the Supreme Court they are “people’) who would like to shut down small blogs so as to do away with competition.  And since these “people” can finance campaigns, they generally get what they want.  All, I am arguing for is a counter to these people’s influence and organized labor is the only institutionalized way we have to counter this.  It sort of sounds to me that you want the same thing really; you just would like to do it differently.  Look, I am all for having a better counter and if you can show me a counter that’s institutionalized and better, great.  Until then, though, organized labor is the best we have.