Fresh off a Supreme Court loss that stripped them of millions of dollars in an annual revenue, California public employee unions are finding that they still have the big money they need to run statewide political campaigns.
It just might not be enough cash to keep up with their opponents.
The first test of California public-sector union spending after labor’s June defeat at the Supreme Court in Janus vs. AFSCME is unfolding in the race for state superintendent, a contest that typically attracts intense interest from education unions and groups that want to embrace charter schools.
Education unions have ponied up $12.3 million in an independent expenditure committee to back Democratic Assemblyman Tony Thurmond. Thurmond has raised another $2.3 million in his committee.
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In any other year, that haul would be more than enough to match an opponent. In fact, it’s about $4.5 million more than the same coalition gathered four years ago to support Superintendent Tom Torlakson against former Los Angeles education executive Marshal Tuck.
But this time, Tuck and his allies have much deeper pockets.
Charter school backers support Tuck
Charter school advocates and billionaires like Bill Bloomfield and Eli Broad have amassed $30.3 million in independent expenditure committees supporting Tuck. Tuck has accumulated another $4.3 million in his own fundraising account.
It’s a daunting deficit for the education unions that have thrown their weight behind Thurmond.
“It’s not like we’re not spending money,” said Dave Low, executive director of the California School Employees Association. “Frankly, post-Janus, we’ve done well. We’re still getting outspent close to two to one just because they’re spending gigantic amounts of money.”
The court’s decision in Janus held that public-sector unions cannot collect fees from workers who don’t choose to join them. The ruling ended a 41-year precedent that allowed unions to charge “fair share” fees from workers who benefited from union-negotiated contracts but did not pay full dues.
By definition, fair share fees were not supposed to support union political campaigns. They were a portion of full dues that represented the cost of negotiating a contract, enforcing it and representing employees in workplace disputes. Losing the fees, however, compelled unions to cut costs and trim staff across their organizations.
The massive California Teachers Association, for instance, had a membership rate of about 90 percent last year, meaning the Janus decision cost it fair share fees from about 10 percent of the 325,000 educators it represented.
California Teachers Association spends big
The CTA is a perennial political powerhouse. It spearheaded the $121 million campaign unions bankrolled in 2005 to stymie then-Gov. Schwarzenegger’s initiatives to revamp teacher tenure and restrict government spending.
It reported spending a combined $11 million on state politics between its independent expenditure committee and its issues political action committee in 2014, when Torlakson defeated Tuck. It has spent $16 million this year through those accounts, according to state records.
Low’s union advocates for the state’s 240,000 classified employees in public schools. It orchestrated a membership campaign leading up to the Janus decision that boosted its ranks to 92 percent of the employees it represents. It has contributed $675,000 to the union-led fundraising committee supporting Thurmond.
California is one of 13 states where voters can elect school superintendents. The superintendent is the state’s top-ranking education official and oversees the Department of Education. The governor holds more sway over education by setting education budgets and appointing members to the Board of Education, but the superintendent can use the office to advocate policies or build coalitions with lawmakers.
Both candidates have pledged to press the next governor to boost education funding.
Tuck, who led a nonprofit organization overseeing struggling Los Angeles schools, is perceived as friendlier to charter schools than Thurmond. The California Charter Schools Association Advocates has contributed $1 million to an independent expenditure committee supporting Tuck.
Tuck said the high spending in the race reflects an urgency among voters to see progress at lower-performing schools.
“I want to get a lot more flexibility to the school districts,” Tuck said. “We’re the wealthiest state in the nation, and we have some of the worst schools. We need fundamental change, and that’s what this race at its core is about.”
Madeline Franklin, Thurmond’s campaign manager, said education unions are sticking with Thurmond rather than joining the deep-pocketed donors backing Tuck.
“Clearly Tony is the candidate that the teachers want, and Marshall is the candidate that Republicans and billionaires want,” she said.