Proposition 32: New lipstick, old pig

A glance at the familiar extreme-right faces vying—again—to quash unions with another ballot measure

This year’s Proposition 32 is a cut from similar—and unsuccessful—ham-fisted efforts to limit or ban unions from raising money to spend on the political process.

This year’s Proposition 32 is a cut from similar—and unsuccessful—ham-fisted efforts to limit or ban unions from raising money to spend on the political process.

illustration by priscilla garcia

This story originally appeared in the East Bay Express at

Backers of Proposition 32 are portraying it as a fresh, nonpartisan attempt to clean up California’s political system. But the statewide measure, in fact, has origins that date back both to legislation crafted 15 years ago by conservative lawyers and also to a pair of propositions that sought to ban unions from taking part in what has become the most important part of the political process: raising and spending money.

Although voters rejected those previous measures, wealthy corporate interests have decided to return to the ballot box again this year with Prop. 32, an initiative that not only is similar to the previous two, but also, in some ways, much more extreme.

The idea that eventually led to Prop. 32 was hatched in the late 1990s by attorneys paid by the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council. They wrote anti-union legislation that was inspired by conservative charter-school activists in Orange County, who put a proposition on the California ballot that would have radically undermined union participation in state politics.

Backed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, Proposition 226 sought to prohibit unions from using member dues for political purposes. It was funded with five- and six-figure checks from a handful of über-rich conservatives such as Carl Lindner Jr., Richard Scaife and Jerrold Perenchio. Voters, however, defeated the measure by a seven-point margin.

In 2005, some of the same corporate elites returned with Proposition 75, this time using Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as their salesman. They polished the proposition through ALEC’s national network of anti-labor lawyers, but Prop. 75 was basically the same as Prop. 226. It would have undermined unions’ abilities to use payroll deductions to fund political expenditures, and California voters rejected the measure by the same seven-point margin.

Although Prop. 32 is being billed by supporters as more evenhanded than 75 and 226, it in fact goes beyond the longtime conservative strategy of requiring unions to obtain annual written consent from their members before using paycheck deductions on political campaigns. Prop. 32 would enforce an outright ban on union money in politics by making it illegal for unions to give contributions to candidates.

Prop. 32’s sponsors also seem to have learned from the prior defeats. This time, they’re soft-pedaling the anti-union measure as one that targets all “special interests.” The wording of the proposition implies that it would ban both union and corporate contributions to candidate committees, thereby stemming the flow of labor and corporate dollars in elections. But legal experts who have analyzed Prop. 32 say this is disingenuous.

“This measure disproportionately affects unions,” said Michael Salerno, associate director of the Center for State and Local Government Law at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. He shared an old saying in politics: “You’ve got the sizzle, and you’ve got the beef. The sizzle is the stuff that appeals to voters,” such as the notion that businesses shouldn’t be able to make contributions to politicians that decide on their contracts.

“The beef is: Unions can’t use payroll deductions to get political contributions from their members. Corporations don’t use payroll deductions from their employees. They just use their corporate resources,” said Salerno.

In other words, Prop. 32 would slightly restrict the channels through which corporations can funnel their money into the political process, but the measure would absolutely cut off union money, because it outlaws the one method available for unions to raise dollars on anything approaching the same scale as businesses and wealthy individuals: paycheck deductions.

“What makes labor powerful is that aggregation,” said Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. “Labor is able to aggregate the small contributions of its members through paycheck deductions to have a seat at the table alongside big business.”

Even so, Bender said labor unions are still overshadowed by the influence of corporations: “When you add up all the business dollars together spent in a typical state election, to get a picture of the people on the other side of the table from labor, labor always ends up being dwarfed by five to seven times or more.”

This is true in California. Although unions such as the Service Employees International Union; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and the California Teachers Association are among the largest single sources of campaign contributions, many more corporations rank equally as high. And when you add up all the union money and compare it to the dollars corporations spend to elect and influence state and local leaders, it turns out unions are not at all in the driver’s seat.

This year, for example, none of the top-five contributors to candidates and committees in California are unions: Two are tobacco companies, one is a hedge-fund manager, another is Molly Munger (whose wealth is mostly inherited from her father, the vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.) and the fifth is the American Cancer Society.

Data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics shows that corporations have spent roughly $108 million on this year’s elections in California, while labor unions have contributed only about $30 million. And $8 million of the unions’ total has gone toward defeating Prop. 32.

The dollar-for-dollar big picture then is that unions are significantly weaker than corporations and wealthy individuals under the current system.

Ken Jacobs, chairman of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, said it’s important to keep in mind that unions are raising money from thousands, even millions, of members, while corporations and the wealthy are representing much smaller, more elite interest groups, making comparisons between the two adversaries inappropriate.

“What unions do is aggregate small amounts of money from lots of people,” Jacobs said. “This enables working people to come together in politics and have some say to be a counterbalance.”

Jacobs said it’s imperative for voters to also understand that Prop. 32 threatens much more than union political representation. “I think it’s really important that people appreciate what it is that labor fights for,” he said. “When we step back and look at the role unions played in increasing the state minimum wage, for example, that’s something union members weren’t directly affected by, but that’s something all workers in California have benefited from, with the biggest impact on nonunion workers.”

Jacobs added that this is true for so many protections unions have fought for: public education, labor and environmental standards, tax fairness, anti-poverty programs, occupational health and safety. “There’s a whole slew of areas where labor has pitched in to improve the quality of life for all Californians,” he argued.

It’s this wider agenda of undermining democratization, equality and environmental justice that might explain the motives of some of Prop. 32’s biggest funders. Like previous efforts to gut union power in California, Prop. 32 is funded by conservatives whose agenda stretches far beyond conflicts between workers and management over wages and benefits.

For example, Carl Lindner Jr., a major backer of 1998’s Prop. 226, was the owner of the Chiquita Brands International Inc. banana and fruit company. Lindner’s opposition to environmental regulation and labor standards ran so deep that his company was accused by the U.S. Department of State of secretly using banned pesticides and hiring a paramilitary outfit classified as a “terrorist organization” to attack plantation workers and forcibly displace villagers near its Colombian land holdings.

Prop. 32 has similarly extreme funders, whose goals stretch far beyond a desire to limit collective bargaining and who perceive unions as impediments to their larger agenda. For example, Howard Ahmanson Jr., one of Prop. 32’s biggest funders, is well-known for his anti-gay crusades. He has spent millions supporting anti-gay politicians and ballot propositions like Proposition 8. And, at one time, he belonged to a Christian sect that advocated the death penalty for homosexuals.

He once explained his overarching political goals as the “total integration of biblical law into our lives.”

Another Prop. 32 funder is George Hume, who owns Basic American Foods, a food-manufacturing company. Hume’s deceased father, Jack Hume, was a founding member of Ronald Reagan’s Kitchen Cabinet, the far-right unofficial advisory group composed of wealthy businessmen who pressed Reagan for corporate-tax cuts and major increases in military spending. Under George Hume’s control, Basic American Foods has battled its low-wage employees on several occasions, including a brutal, two-year-long strike at a vegetable-dehydration plant in King City, Calif., in 2001.

Hume is a major Republican money source and contributes nationally to anti-labor politicians. In 2012, he gave $10,000 to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who was fighting a recall effort prompted by his attempt to repeal collective-bargaining rights for government workers.

“Prop. 32 is part and parcel of an agenda to move the state and nation to the right,” said Jacobs. “This comes partly from interest in pushing for privatization which unions oppose, but also pushing for deregulation, reduction in environmental laws and other areas where unions have helped to serve as a counterbalance to corporate America.”