Famous Victories 

How labor won on Tuesday; how Gray Davis can win this fall

Wednesday, Jun 3 1998

In the end, what really doomed Proposition 226 in Tuesday's primary election was its pedigree: This was a measure that, politically, came from nowhere.

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That is, 226 didn't emerge out of a mass discontent with unions or with union political-action programs, which it sought to decimate. With the labor movement reduced to representing just 14 percent of the work force, the percentage of Americans with a visceral dislike of unions has correspondingly dwindled as well: It's hard to hate that which you don't even encounter. More positively, the public perception of unions has taken a modest upturn in the three years since John Sweeney took the helm at the AFL-CIO, during which labor has increasingly focused on such popular causes as raising the minimum wage and campaigning against sweatshops.

So, unlike Proposition 227 - which is the misshapen expression of a genuinely widespread lack of confidence in bilingual education and the public schools generally, as well as of a nativist uneasiness at the growing multiculturalism of California - Proposition 226 neither arose from nor was rooted in a public clamor to do something about a social problem. To the contrary, it arose from a very select clamor: that of Republican leaders and strategists, who were shaken by the scope and effectiveness of the union effort during the '96 campaign. And nowhere had the movement been more active and effective than in California, where labor mobilized thousands of volunteers who enabled the Democrats to win back the Assembly.

It's no mystery, then, what led Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform and a longtime strategist and henchman for Newt Gingrich, to fund the drive that put 226 on the ballot, and to develop plans to run parallel campaigns all across the nation. As the Republicans saw it, the time to dismantle labor's newfound political clout was now, before it had the opportunity to become even more proficient at waging campaigns and to cultivate a new generation of political organizers.

What this meant, however, was that 226 was rooted in nothing more than a strategic conceit, as the dearth of volunteers working on its behalf made abundantly clear. Arrayed against it was a constituency that felt its very life was on the line: that without the ability to engage in politics, the American labor movement would shrivel and die. In the campaign just completed, labor had both the resources and the passion on its side, a combination that in politics is almost always unbeatable.

It was, of course, the "Yes" campaign that looked unbeatable for many months preceding the vote. As recently as February, 226 was leading in the Field Poll by a 71-to-22-percent margin. At first glance, the measure seemed all but unarguable within the Jeffersonian framework of American politics: Requiring unions to obtain the annual permission of members to use a small portion of their dues on politics seemed reasonable enough. At second glance, however, the measure virtually mandated a shift in the balance of class power in California politics, for it was only unions that were required to seek such permission: Other membership groups weren't so obliged. Corporations, say, which already outspent unions by an 11-1 margin, were not required to seek approval from shareholders.

The Norquist coven accuses labor of waging a deceptive campaign against 226. In fact, labor did largely refrain from debating the question of the rights of individual members, although when it engaged the issue, it noted that members already have the right, under the Supreme Court's Beck decision, to withhold the portion of their dues that goes to politics, and that the turnover rate of local union leadership is high enough to suggest that discontent with union policies does not go unregistered. But the core of labor's campaign, which addressed the aggregate effects of erasing unions from California's political landscape, was entirely on point. The privatization of education, the continued export of jobs and the reduction in the pressure for HMO reform - three of the issues that the "No" campaign highlighted in its ads - were all predictable consequences of 226's enactment.

For all that, the "No on 226" campaign took some time to get on track - and particularly, the campaign that the AFL-CIO waged to turn around the vote of its own members. In the February Field Poll, fully 67 percent of union-household voters expressed support for the measure. In the late-May Field Poll, 68 percent said they were opposed. The epochal effort to reverse the union vote began in earnest in mid-March, when the national AFL-CIO sent Arlene Holt - once the California director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, more recently an official at the AFL-CIO's Washington headquarters - to coordinate the unions' campaign here. Holt spearheaded the activities of more than 50 full-time coordinators that various unions donated to the campaign - a group, drawn from the new generation of Sweeney-era organizers, that was disproportionately young, female and nonwhite. They coordinated a campaign that, by Holt's estimate, sent at least eight pieces of mail to all AFL-CIO members in the state, reached 500,000 of them by phone and hundreds of thousands more through precinct walks. Which is to say, for all the money that labor ponied up, the "No on 226" campaign was also hugely labor-intensive. "We can't put a dollar value," said Holt at one East L.A. campaign rally last Sunday, "on all the volunteers."

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