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Wilson, Unions in Grudge Match

Governor spearheads initiative that would hamper an old enemy's campaign clout. Labor leaders say he is currying favor with business for a presidential run.


SACRAMENTO — This is the last act for Gov. Pete Wilson, his final year as California's chief executive. And like a veteran crooner on a farewell tour, the governor has returned to old favorites for a curtain dropper.

Combining his historic willingness to embrace divisive ballot measures with a longtime antipathy toward organized labor, Wilson has seized the spotlight as leader of a June ballot measure intended to undercut the influence of unions in California politics.

The measure, Proposition 226, would require unions to obtain a member's permission each year before using dues for political campaigns, a prospect that has struck fear among Democrats and union leaders nationwide.

Wilson calls the high-stakes campaign, which has sparked similar measures across the country, one of the great public services of his career.

"I believe in it passionately," Wilson said in an interview. "It's the right thing."

Those are weighty words from a politician who in recent years made a national name as a vocal proponent of headline-grabbing ballot battles over illegal immigration, affirmative action and the three-strikes initiative. Union leaders say Wilson's motive in pushing Proposition 226 is simple: He wants to curry favor with conservative Republican donors as he prepares for a possible presidential run in 2000.

Proposition 226 marks the sixth time in Wilson's tenure as governor that he has played a key role in supporting a controversial statewide ballot measure. "No politician this century has exploited the initiative process better than Pete Wilson," said Chuck Price, a Cal State Chico political science professor.

The governor's political opponents say Proposition 226 is among the most mean-spirited of the measures. "This reflects a serious character defect in the governor: he tries to destroy his enemies," said state Sen. Bill Lockyer, a Hayward Democrat and frequent Wilson foil. "It would be horribly unfair to silence working people and let money from corporations and the wealthy totally dominate politics."

Wilson has campaigned hard for Proposition 226, both publicly and privately. It has sent him to Washington for chats with big-ticket donors. He has rallied the nation's Republican governors to join in the anti-union fray. His campaign team--battle-tested in repeated statewide races--is fully engaged.

Of late, Wilson has even taken to paraphrasing one of the country's founding fathers to make his pitch.

"I think Jefferson was right when he said it's sinful and tyrannical to take someone's money and spend it for political purposes to which they are violently opposed," Wilson said in an interview last week. "And that happens every day. . . . Many, many times the choices and the decisions made by the union leadership flies right in the face of the desires of their members."

But the notion of Pete Wilson looking out for the union man has leaders of organized labor apoplectic. Wilson's political career has been marked by disputes with unions, particularly those representing public employees.

Tussles With Unions

As the mayor of San Diego in the 1970s, he repeatedly got in tussles with unions representing bus drivers and firefighters. "This guy has been trashing workers since he was mayor," said Drew Mendelson, a California State Employees Assn. spokesman. "He virtually destroyed the employee unions down there."

In 1978, during a first abortive run for governor, Wilson helped a failed bid for a statewide initiative to outlaw strikes by public employees. He also helped beat back attempts in Sacramento to let independent arbitrators settle collective bargaining disputes with public employee unions. Wilson argued that it would rob taxpayers of their elected representative at the negotiation table.

His two terms as governor have been shadowed by feuds with public employee unions, most notably the powerful California Teachers Assn.

Wilson still bristles over TV commercials the teachers union aired that painted him as the culprit behind the long 1992 state budget stalemate. The ads helped sink him in public opinion polls. Since then, Wilson has jousted with the teachers on charter schools, merit pay, statewide testing standards, class-size reduction and a raft of other issues.

Teachers are particularly wary of a November ballot measure Wilson is pushing to give parents and state lawmakers more power over schools. It also would require teachers to be evaluated for promotion based partly on student test scores. If Proposition 226 is approved in June, they fear it could shackle union attempts to thwart the measure in the fall.

The California State Employees Assn., meanwhile, has battled Wilson in court on overtime pay and the diversion of state employee pension funds.

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