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California wades into national labor debate

Associated Press Modified: October 3, 2012 at 7:00 pm •  Published: October 3, 2012

LOS ANGELES (AP) — California voters are being asked to starve unions of the tens of millions of dollars they use to finance campaigns and political organizing, as the nation's largest state wades into the national debate over labor clout.

The battle over Proposition 32 on the November ballot follows conflicts in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere where efforts to dilute the strength of organized labor have produced political tumult, a flood of TV ads and widespread demonstrations.

The proposal, which supporters describe as a cure-all for special-interest politics, has attracted national attention for a provision that would ban the way California unions traditionally raise money to support candidates and fuel political activity.

Overall, there are about 2.4 million union members in California, and that money has helped make teachers, prison guards and other public workers some of the most feared institutions in Sacramento, where labor has longstanding ties with Democrats who now control both chambers of the Legislature and every statewide office.

Speaking last month in Los Angeles, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka described California as a firewall where unions must turn back the latest attempt to "silence the voice of working people." California voters rejected similar measures in 2005 and 1998.

"Without the voice of working people, politics don't work. Not for working people, and not for America. And that's why we use our unions to balance the power of corporations," Trumka said, according to remarks posted on the union website.

Unions, Trumka said, are fighting "the same right-wing billionaires who tried to kill collective bargaining in Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana."

The vote comes with unions on the defensive across the nation.

Government workers are facing political pressure to roll back pay and benefits that are straining state budgets. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a so-called right-to-work law in February banning unions from collecting mandatory fees for representation — a move that emboldened supporters in Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and other states.

Labor suffered a stinging defeat in Wisconsin earlier this year, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker beat back a recall challenge following his push to limit collective bargaining rights for most public workers. In June, voters in San Diego and San Jose overwhelmingly approved reduced retirement benefits for city workers. Those reforms, which are being challenged in court, hit current employees as well as future hires.

The money being funneled into the California race provides a stark look at the stakes, mirroring previous battles in which union strength has been tested at the state Capitol.

A long list of unions and other opponents have raised roughly $40 million for the fight so far, with the biggest checks cut by the California Teachers Association.

Committees supporting the proposition have pulled in nearly $20 million, with more than $4 million coming from the American Future Fund, an Iowa-based organization that supports conservative causes with ties to billionaires Charles and David Koch.

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