Has Labor Met Its Match in 2010?


For years, organized labor has been the most prolific financial contributor in California politics, generously distributing contributions to political candidates and ballot box issues. 

But in 2010, there may be too many races and issues even for the unions to flex their political muscles as they have in the past.

Of the top 10 contributors to political campaigns between 2001 and 2010, the California Teachers Association has spent $211.8 million on California candidates and ballot issues, edging out three major Indian tribes, which
collectively have given $201.8 million. 

The California State Council of Service Employees, another labor organization, stands as third largest contributor at $107.4 million, followed by Pacific Gas & Electric Company, $69.2 million, and Chevron Corporation, $66.2 million.  

The timing in the current economic environment couldn't be worse.  With state and local governments budgets in deficit shambles, much needed programs and services have been cut to the bone, and then some. 
Increasingly, these governments now look to the largest category of expenditures--personnel--as the next place to cut salaries, benefits and pensions. 

These moves have put labor on the defensive, something that historically might be overcome with massive campaign contributions to friendly executive branch and legislative branch candidates.

But 2010 will be different.  To begin with, the state's major unions must be part of the coalition to elect the under-funded, yet labor-friendly Democrat Jerry Brown who faces the "Bank of Whitman," which has already self- funded Meg Whitman's gubernatorial campaign to the tune of an astounding $91 million and threatens to double that amount between now and Nov. 2.  That's a headache in itself. 

Beyond the demands of the governor's race, labor will be called upon to help re-elect Barbara Boxer to the U.S. Senate; her campaign is also threatened in part by the willingness of Republican Carly Fiorina to self-fund, although nowhere to the extent of Whitman. 

Add to these two races the necessity of the California Teacher's Association to weigh in heavily on the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction, where historically the union has been the dominant player.  

Then there are those ever pesky ballot issues, which few people understand yet can totally change the state's political framework.  Of the ten statewide ballot propositions that have already qualified for November, at least five are of immediate interest to organized labor. 

Two would change the rules for budget-making--one making the process more difficult, the other easing the rules.  Two others would deal with the legislative redistricting process, also important because of the way the new rules could help or hinder labor-friendly candidates. 

A fifth would roll back the $2 billion corporate tax break given by the legislature last year as part of the budget deal; passage of that proposition would lower the deficit and presumably preserve jobs as well as badly needed programs and services.

Put all these races and issues together and labor is in bind.  Even the largest financial juggernaut of the past decade can't possibly be a meaningful player in so many campaigns.  

So, what is likely to happen?  Look for the unions to test the waters in several campaigns to see where their contributions make the greatest impact on public opinion.  Once the most receptive races are found, we can expect labor to target its contributions to get the biggest bang for the public.      

But make no mistake about it: labor will be operating in a defensive posture as the 2010 elections reach their frenetic climax.  The only uncertainty is not how many battles they win but how they can minimize their losses.

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