A man hands out signs at a rally in Los Angeles earlier this month. (Reed Saxon, Associated…)
SACRAMENTO — Facing a ballot measure that could sharply rein in its political clout in California, organized labor is fighting back with a massive operation to get millions of union voters to the polls next week.
In the process, the intense effort to defeat Proposition 32 could make the difference in a number of tight contests up and down the ballot, including that of Gov. Jerry Brown's tax-hike initiative, Proposition 30.
Proposition 32 would eliminate unions' primary political fundraising tool: deductions from members' paychecks.
"This is a personal attack on many workers in this state — and they feel that," said Steve Smith, a spokesman for the California Labor Federation. "Any time you are facing something like that, things get ratcheted up."
More than 30,000 union members have volunteered to knock on doors, make phone calls and canvass work sites, contacting more than 2 million people in the last few months, according to the labor federation, an umbrella group for the state's unions. Labor leaders hope to reach an additional million before election day.
Pushing California's new online voter-registration system, officials said, they've added tens of thousands of new voters to the rolls. California Calls, a coalition of advocacy groups, said it was focusing on turning out new and infrequent voters.
Unions are also helping to bankroll an effort to increase turnout among Latinos. The group Mi Familia Vota has more than 200 paid staffers working in areas of the state with heavy Latino populations, including Los Angeles and the Central Valley.
Organizers said they've contacted more than 600,000 voters in those places so far, urging them to oppose Proposition 32 and support Proposition 30.
The unions' opponents — Republican donors, anti-tax activists and business executives — have invested tens of millions of dollars in television and radio ads to boost support for the paycheck measure and attack Brown's tax initiative. The state GOP has set up a dozen offices across the state, although party officials said they lacked the resources to match labor's ground game.
In the past, paycheck measures intended to undercut unions in California have had the unintended effect of galvanizing them.
In 2005, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special election to promote a series of conservative ballot measures, including one that would have restricted public employee unions' collection of dues for politics. He planned on the low turnout that typically accompanies an off-year vote.
But labor financed a vigorous opposition campaign, helping to generate voting numbers similar to those of a traditional contest. The measures failed.
Brown could benefit from the unions' energy. With polls showing Proposition 32 losing, union members are shifting more support to his struggling tax measure, which would temporarily hike levies on sales and upper-income earners to stave off billions of dollars in education cuts and help plug the budget deficit.
The threat to public schools and colleges has prompted members of California's teacher unions to walk precincts and operate phone banks.
"They are bound and determined to get the word out," said Dean Vogel, president of the 325,000-member California Teachers Assn. "What's happening in communities as people hear teachers talk about the impact if this thing fails is they are starting to take another look."
On a recent Saturday morning, dozens of volunteers gathered in a union trailer next to a highway truck stop just outside Sacramento. They fueled up on coffee and freshly grilled pancakes before receiving packets of voting lists and campaign fliers.
Theresa Taylor and Robert Reichert, workers at the Franchise Tax Board, fanned out across a quiet neighborhood of cul-de-sacs, traipsing around Halloween displays on their way to three dozen doors.
"The door-to-door, face-to-face contact solidifies people's decisions," Taylor said.
Wearing the trademark purple of the Service Employees International Union, they've been working the same two precincts for the last month. Their sales pitch has been boiled down to six words: "No on 32. Yes on 30."
The two knocked on the door of Danielle Kerns, a fellow SEIU member. She had already received the message.
"I did what the union said," she said, telling Taylor she had already sent in her ballot.
The volunteers reminded mail voters to use sufficient postage and left handwritten notes for union members who weren't home.
Those workers will get phone calls later.