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California wades into national labor debate

Associated Press Modified: October 3, 2012 at 7:00 pm •  Published: October 3, 2012
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Other prominent supporters include Stanford physicist Charles Munger Jr., the son of billionaire Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Vice Chairman Charles Munger, who has donated more than $10 million, and former Univision CEO Jerry Perenchio, a frequent Republican donor, who has given $800,000.

Proposition 32 would prohibit corporations and unions from collecting money for state political activities from employees or members through paycheck deductions. It also prohibits unions and corporations from making donations to state candidates.

It would hit unions hardest: Corporations do not typically deduct money from employee pay for state political activities, but unions use the practice to fill most of their political treasuries.

Additionally, the proposal would not stop corporations, wealthy individuals or unions from spending unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns through so-called independent expenditure committees. But union money for such purposes would be severely restricted, at least temporarily, if payroll deductions are banned.

California Common Cause, an advocacy group that has pushed for campaign-finance reforms, supports some aspects of the proposition, such as banning contractors from donating to elected officials who have a role in awarding the contract. But, at its heart, Proposition 32 would "gut the ability of private and public unions from speaking in a democracy," spokesman Phillip Ung said.

Jake Suski, a spokesman for the committee supporting the proposition, said it's not about the balance of power in Sacramento.

"It creates a playing field where the individual voter has a bigger voice in the political process," rather than unions or corporations, he said.

Recent independent polls found the proposal trailing, but many voters remain undecided.

Left-leaning California would seem an unlikely state to challenge labor.

Business interests — led by railroad magnates — held a lock on Sacramento lawmakers into the early 20th century, but that began to change during the Progressive Era when reformers sought to curb government corruption and corporate power. The state is the birthplace of the farm workers union, and a dock strike in the 1930s led to the unionization of ports across the West.

Jaime Regalado, former executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles, said while there has been some backlash over union benefits he doesn't see the labor conflict witnessed in other states taking hold in California. State polls have found routinely that corporations tend to be viewed more negatively than unions.

Compared to more conservative states "it's going to be a much harder sell," Regalado said. "It doesn't mirror what we are seeing in the Midwest. It's not a hostile climate here."

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Follow Michael R. Blood at http://twitter.com/MichaelRBloodAP .