By Steven Harmon
Bay Area News Group

Posted: 01/29/2012 06:59:19 PM PST
Updated: 01/30/2012 03:20:06 AM PST

SACRAMENTO — The raging battle over the political and economic clout of labor unions is headed west to California.

The state’s powerful labor groups have anxiously witnessed union rights and benefits being gutted in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. Now, unions in California are girding for an all-out war over a ballot initiative that would curb their ability to raise political cash.

If the November measure passes, unions would have to get written permission from their members every year to use their dues for political purposes.

In California, that’s a fight that could eclipse a presidential ballot filled with other intriguing and controversial measures, including Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to hike taxes temporarily.

“This could change the balance of power long after the governor’s taxes are expired,” said Thad Kousser, a political-science professor at UC San Diego. “Defeating this has got to be the top goal of labor. If they don’t, they could become almost extinct in California politics.”

Labor interests are expected to shell out more than the $28 million they spent seven years ago to defeat a similar measure.

On the surface, going after the unions’ clout in California might appear to be a fool’s errand.

Labor is the backbone of the state Democratic Party, which controls the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature. And the state’s voters have gone blue in all five presidential contests since 1992.

Growing resentment

In 2010 alone, labor spent more than $30 million to help elect Brown over free-spending Republican Meg Whitman, in addition to tens of millions more to secure Democratic victories up and down the ballot.

In 1998 and again in 2005, labor groups thwarted statewide initiatives aimed at cutting off their political lifeblood by prohibiting unions from using dues for politics.

But buoyed by labor’s setbacks in the Midwest, a group of Orange County GOP activists is hoping to tap into growing voter resentment toward public employee unions’ pensions and other perks.

A recent Field Poll showed that a growing number of Californians — from 32 percent two years ago to 41 percent in December — believe public workers’ pensions are too generous. One big reason: Many workers in the private sector have seen their wages drop and pensions disappear in recent years.

Some labor leaders fear that the anger against public unions could raise voters’ ire against all unions. In addition, another planned November ballot measure designed to roll back the pensions of public employees could feed into the hostile environment for labor.

America’s economic anxiety has emboldened conservatives to curb labor’s power, said Joseph McCartin, a professor of labor history at Georgetown University. Labor is under fire around the country from Republicans and wealthy donors such as David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers who bankrolled the tea party movement.

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