SACRAMENTO — With union ranks depleted and labor protections under attack in the Republican-controlled Assembly, state labor leaders are preparing to wage what they say will be their most aggressive political effort in years, perhaps ever, in California.
Hoping to recapture the Assembly for Democrats and maintain Democratic control in the state Senate, union leaders are denouncing Republican proposals to cut wages for construction workers and repeal workplace rules requiring companies to pay overtime for work beyond eight hours in a day.
In addition, to give union members and occasional voters more reason to go to the polls, organized labor expects to have five initiatives on the November ballot.
The main lure will be an initiative to boost California's minimum wage to $5.75 by 1998, from the current $4.25. The proposal has such wide support that Republican pollster Arnold Steinberg says "It's silly for Republicans to fight it at all."
Emboldened by aggressive new leadership in the national AFL-CIO, labor leaders in California hope to pour millions into state elections. But cash is only a part of labor's arsenal. Bay Area Teamsters leader Chuck Mack, for instance, pledges to deploy 2,000 experienced campaign workers for Democratic campaigns in Northern California.
"The campaign this fall is going to be the most hard-fought, bloodiest, dirtiest ever," GOP political consultant Alan Hoffenblum said. "It's going to be mean. It's going to be down and dirty. Labor will play a major part, and they are singular in giving to Democrats."
Labor fired an opening salvo in the March primary, at Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian (R-Carlsbad). Kaloogian entered the election season with almost no money for a campaign. There didn't seem to be a need. No Democrat was challenging him. He did have a primary opponent, Dolores Clayton, but she had never run for office, and the GOP was solidly behind Kaloogian.
Then, 10 days before the March primary, Kaloogian became the target of a biting television ad campaign, paid for largely by firefighter unions. Firefighters are among the few labor organizations that donate to Democrats and Republicans. But Kaloogian had infuriated them with proposals to turn many government functions, including firefighting, over to private enterprise. They saw it as a threat to the jobs of government workers, almost all of whom are in unions.
The television spots took the form of a game show, complete with ringing bells and flashing lights, and a chirpy announcer inviting viewers to "Name That Kook."
"Who said we have a responsibility to overthrow the government?" the announcer said as pictures appeared of Oklahoma bombing defendant Timothy McVeigh, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and, finally, Kaloogian. "Kaloogian is correct!"
Kaloogian survived, but not without scrambling to raise $105,000 to fight back. He expects a challenge this fall. Kaloogian is confident he will be reelected. But some Republicans worry that labor's effort could result in GOP losses at the Capitol, at a time when they can't afford any defeats. Republicans hold 41 of the 80 Assembly seats, and 16 of 40 state Senate seats.
"If we Republicans can't articulate our agenda and why working people benefit from it, we could be in for a rough time this November," said Assemblyman Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), the main architect of the Republican victory in the Assembly two years ago.
Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), leading the GOP election effort for the Assembly this year, dismisses the union threat.
"We've always planned the election strategy [assuming] labor is going to heavily support Democratic candidates. That's nothing new," Pringle said. "I'm sure the campaign contributions will reflect the fact that they support people heavily who support a straight labor line."
Pringle says he has "never supported a government imposed minimum wage," and like most Assembly Republicans, he opposes labor's probable ballot measure to boost the minimum wage to $5 next year and $5.75 in 1998. It will force companies to eliminate jobs, he said.
"Our caucus isn't here to try to run jobs out of California. Our caucus is focused on creating jobs," Pringle said.
Union leaders, however, are using the issues to stir up the rank and file, saying the GOP proposals will cut their paychecks. One such proposal would relieve companies of having to pay overtime to workers who put in more than eight hours in a day. They'd receive overtime only for working more than 40 hours in a week.
Backers say the change would make it easier for companies to set up work weeks of four, 10-hour days, to provide workers with more flexibility, and to make manufacturing in California less costly. Unions characterize it as the "repeal of the eight-hour work day," and say it would cut wages of 8 million Californians.