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Jon Ortiz

The State Worker: Separating perception from reality in union wars

Published: Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:13 pm

With Election Day looming, let's look at some popular perceptions about unions filtered through ballot measure Proposition 32:

Perception: Union-covered workers are fed up with their unions' politics.

The Proposition 32 angle: The measure's backers say that it gives workers more freedom to choose whether to support their union's political agendas by banning payroll deductions (i.e. dues) for political activities.

Reality: About 93 percent of union-covered workers in California are full dues-paying members, according to labor membership tracker unionstats, which means part of their dues funds politics.

Why the high percentage? After all, California law allows workers to annually opt out of contributing to their union's political committees.

But those who do lose some benefits, such as voting on contracts. It's a hassle, too, because workers have to opt out annually. Some employees feel workplace pressure to be full members.

Of course, many union members believe wholeheartedly in the cause.

Perception: Californians are fed up with unions.

The Proposition 32 angle: Some ads for the measure have played it as giving "working people" a choice whether to give to political causes.

The ads don't come right out and say it, but they clearly aim at dissatisfied union members and others angry with organized labor.

Reality: Proposition 32 isn't the product of some unstoppable grass-roots groundswell of union dissatisfaction in California.

Of the $58 million given to committees supporting the measure, $35 million came from Stanford physicist Charles Munger Jr. and another $15 million from a couple of murky out-of-state PACs.

Perception: Unions are on the ropes.

The Proposition 32 angle: If you put the measure alongside successful public pension reform votes in San Diego and San Jose and labor's unsuccessful attempt to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the dots practically connect themselves into a picture of weakening labor power.

Reality: Unions have amassed a $66 million war chest to fight 32. You don't pull down that kind of cash without some serious heft.

Labor also has put millions into Gov. Jerry Brown's Proposition 30, which would raise sales taxes and income taxes for high earners.

Now a new Field Poll shows that Brown is within striking distance of winning over a majority of voters, even though persuading Californians to raise their taxes is usually akin to selling garlic fries at a vampire convention.

"A big win on both fronts, and all of a sudden labor will look like it's on the offense and not the defense," said Democratic strategist Darry Sragow.

That would feed another perception, like it or not, that California remains a labor-friendly state.

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About The State Worker

Jon Ortiz The Author

Jon Ortiz launched The State Worker blog and a companion column in 2008 to cover state government from the perspective of California government employees. Every day he filters the news through a single question: "What does this mean for state workers?" Join Ortiz for updates and debate on state pay, benefits, pensions, contracts and jobs. Contact him at (916) 321-1043 and at


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