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Unions Plan Ambitious Political Campaign in State

May 20, 1996|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A state Senate committee last month voted down the Assembly version of the proposal. But it's not dead. Gov. Pete Wilson is urging that his Industrial Welfare Commission make the change administratively. Several hundred union members showed up in protest at a recent commission hearing in San Diego.

At Wilson's behest, the Industrial Welfare Commission also is considering changes in the so-called prevailing wage, a complex formula that ensures construction workers earn top union scale when they work on school, road and other taxpayer-financed public works projects.

The prevailing wage proposal would cut the cost of road construction by 1.6%, perhaps $200 million a year, the Wilson administration estimates. Union leaders say that money would come out of construction workers' pockets, slashing their pay from an average of $28,000 a year to $22,500.

Defending the proposal as being "for the greater good," Wilson press secretary Sean Walsh said: "You're not necessarily taking wages from the average working Californian. You're spreading additional dollars. You'll have more money for more projects."

For unions, however, the proposed cut in the prevailing wage is proving to be a powerful organizing tool. More than 12,000 hard-hats descended on the Capitol in February. Thousands more rallied in Los Angeles.

Republican pollster Steinberg terms labor's effort this year a "last gasp," and is skeptical it will translate into major Democratic gains. He notes that union leaders oppose the November initiative to abolish affirmative action in state hiring, contracting and college admissions. But Steinberg believes union members will side with Republicans, and vote for the measure.

In past years, Steinberg and others say, many of the rank and file split from their leadership and voted Republican because of social issues, such as GOP support of the anti-illegal immigration Proposition 187 and for gun owners' rights. This year, however, Democrats and labor leaders hope economic issues will be dominant.

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"The Republicans' attack on the people's paychecks is the opposite of the 'wedge' issues," said Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles), a labor lawyer. "What Wilson and the Republicans are bringing forward are 'glue' issues. They bring Democrats back together."

In part, labor's re-energized political activism is born of necessity. Union membership in California is 1.8 million, says Jack Henning, longtime head of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.

That's 13% of this state's 14.3 million work force, and a drop of 200,000 since the recession of the early 1990s. A decade ago, union members comprised 20% of the California work force, and almost 40% at the unions' peak in 1955.

The renewed activity also reflects new leadership out to make its mark. The labor federation, the state arm of the AFL-CIO, is undergoing a leadership change, similar to the national AFL-CIO, where John Sweeney was elected on a pledge of greater activism.

After 26 years, Henning, 80, is stepping down in July as head of the labor federation. Henning's replacement is expected to be Art Pulaski, 43, known for his street-level political activism. Pulaski's second in command will be Tom Rankin, currently the federation's Sacramento lobbyist.

"We're going to take it back to the streets where our members work and live," Pulaski said. "We want to get back to the hands-on, nitty-gritty politics."

After not sponsoring an initiative since 1988, the federation is a main backer of the minimum wage initiative. The minimum wage measure is one of five labor-backed initiatives headed for the ballot.

The California Nurses Assn., worried that cost-cutting in the health care industry will mean fewer jobs for its 25,000 registered nurses and poorer patient care, intends to plunge $120,000 into a health care initiative. It would create a commission to regulate the industry, and tax health care companies that close hospitals. Additionally, the nurses more than doubled their budget for state races to $400,000, from $185,000 in 1994, said Kit Costello, the nurses' president.

The Service Employees International Union will be among the most active unions this year. With 300,000 members in government and private business, the SEIU campaign coffer brims with $650,000--after spending $750,000 to help qualify four initiatives. In addition to the minimum wage initiative, SEIU is taking major roles in:

* A health care proposition establishing minimum staff levels in hospitals and protection for doctors who fully advise patients about treatment options from retaliation by medical corporations. It conflicts with the nurses' measure.

* A proposition reinstating upper income tax brackets on individuals who earn $110,000 or more in taxable income, and couples who earn in excess of $220,000. All the money would go to local government.

* A campaign financing proposition which requires candidates to raise much of their money from their districts.

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