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Crosscurrents logo 2021

Will unions in California lose their political influence?

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Proposition 32 is one the most controversial and polarizing measures on California's ballot. Conservatives support it. Unions are fiercely against it.

The proposition is designed to prohibit contributions made by unions and corporations directly to political candidates. It will also stop unions and corporations from automatically deducting money from employees’ paychecks to pay for political activities.

Supporters claim that Prop 32 will decrease the role of special interest money in politics. But unions say it's misleading, will take the voices of working men and women out of the conversation, and will increase the influence of millionaires in Sacramento.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 17 percent of all workers in California are unionized. Most of them work in the public sector. Despite the relatively low numbers, unions are among the more powerful – and deep-pocketed – players in California politics.

If Prop 32 passes, “unions could still do independent expenditures, but they will not have as much money to do it with,” says Eric McGhee, a policy fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. And while money in politics can come from both corporate and union interests, McGhee says Prop 32 changes the status quo for the unions more than for corporations “and in a negative direction.”

From 2000 through 2009, the California Teachers Association and California State Council of Service Employees together spent more than $300 million on political activity. That brings them right next to pharmaceutical lobby groups and corporations like AT&T and Chevron, among the state's top political spenders.

Prop 32 would block corporations and unions from using paycheck deductions for those political purposes, but McGhee says that's a misleading concept. “Corporations typically don't deduct money directly from paychecks in order to pay for political activity whereas unions do. And corporations will still therefore have a lot of money sitting around that they can use for politics.”

A lot of union money is currently going toward defeating Prop 32. Approximately $50 million, so far, including $20 million from the California Teachers Association, spent on various ads.

“Yes on Prop 32’s” biggest supporter is a well-funded conservative organization called the American Future Fund. According to the Sacramento Bee, it’s connected to the Koch brothers, who made their fortune in oil.

While Prop 32 would stop direct contributions to candidates, it would not limit contributions to SuperPACs, which some see as a bigger issue. Still, John Cox, a Republican party activist, says that reformers should really support Prop 32, “because what you are doing is you are tying down the volume, you are reducing this huge, huge pot of money,” he says. “It's not going to get rid of all the special interest money but I would submit to you that doing something is better than not doing anything at all.”

That's one perspective. But democrats, like executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council Tim Paulson, disagree.

“This is not a fair, real piece of reform. Proposition 32 is written very specifically to take one constituency out of the equation,” he says. “It seems that every time somebody comes with some type of so-called reform, it's always at the expense of working men and women,” Paulson adds. At the same time, he agrees that the “fact that everybody has to go through this much money in campaigns in order to win is ridiculous.”

During the last governor’s race in California, in 2010, politicians and SuperPACs spent $250 million to try to win the election. Jerry Brown won. His Republican opponent, Meg Whitman, spent $141 million from her own pocket. It's no wonder people without that kind cash feel disempowered.

In California, caps on political donations to candidates have been in place since 2001. They max out at $26 thousand. But there are no limits on lobbying and supporting ballot measures. And over the past 12 years, more than $3.5 billion have been spent by various donors in California politics. About one third of it was supplied by a narrow group of the 100 wealthiest individuals and organizations.

McGhee says that latest effort ar campaign finance probably won't change that because, “Prop 32 changes where the money comes from more than it changes where the money goes to” – which is right into paying for political power.