California Unions Help Defeat Ballot Measure Targeting Campaign Donations

Voters rejected Prop. 32, which would have restricted unions from using payroll deductions to fund campaigns.
by , | November 7, 2012

For full election coverage and analysis, go to Governing's 2012 Election Center.

California labor unions succeeded in pushing back against a ballot initiative that would have crippled their ability to raise campaign funds and influence elections in the state.

Voters soundly rejected Proposition 32 by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent, with about 95 percent of precincts reporting this morning.

Political observers in the state widely viewed Proposition 32 as the most restrictive measure in the country targeting unions’ ability to influence politics. If enacted, the measure would have banned unions and corporations from using payroll deductions to collect any money for political purposes.

"This was never about campaign finance reform," said Steve Smith, communications director for the California Labor Federation. "It was about hurting working people and silencing unions."

Similar laws in Idaho, Michigan, Utah, Washington and Wyoming already restrict unions. But Proposition 32 would have taken another step by not allowing members to opt in for payroll deductions for campaign contributions. Instead, labor groups would have needed to establish entirely new mechanisms for raising money, such as contributions via credit cards.

Labor groups saw how “paycheck protection” laws had played out in other states, fearing a sharp reduction in their ability to raise funds. Similar laws greatly diminished unions’ campaign coffers. A 2006 study by the conservative Heritage Foundation estimates paycheck laws had cut campaign contributions by approximately 50 percent in states.

Conversely, the California measure would have done little to limit corporations’ ability to raise funds, as they typically do not raise money from payroll deductions.

Both labor and conservative groups opposed to the ballot initiative recognized the stakes were high and funded costly campaigns to sway voters. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that interest groups likely poured more money into the measure than any other on the statewide ballot, with more than $60 million raised by each side.

The California Labor Federation's Smith said the fight to defeat Proposition 32 aided other union-backed efforts this election cycle. These include the passage of Proposition 30, a tax hike to stave off school funding cuts.

The defeat marks the third such victory for California labor unions in recent years. Voters rejected Proposition 75 in 2005 and Proposition 226 in 1998 by seven-point margins, both of which required unions to seek permission from members before using their dues to fund campaigns.

Smith cited the vast resources of conservative businessman Charles T. Munger, who spent millions supporting the measure, and other groups as evidence that the state's unions might continue to face similar initiatives in future elections.

"Sooner or later, they're going to have to see that Californians are not at all interested in passing it, no matter how much money they throw at it," he said.


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