Union Efforts Bring Out the Voters, but It’s Not Enough

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Times Staff Writers

In the end, organized labor couldn’t rescue Gov. Gray Davis.

Unions turned out their own for Davis at a higher rate than voters in general. Some 56% opposed the recall. Still, union members -- and to a greater extent their families -- flouted the edicts of union leaders more than usual.

And labor’s half-hearted effort to garner votes for the top Democrat, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, flopped.

Just 43% of union members voted for him, according to Times exit polls, with 51% voting for the top Republican candidates, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom McClintock.


Now organized-labor leaders must find a way to work with the Republican governor-elect, who drew a sharp line between himself and Davis by refusing to take campaign contributions from unions, saying he wanted to maintain impartiality during state contract negotiations.

Schwarzenegger also charged that Davis, with his close ties to unions and other groups he labeled “special interests,” had overlooked the needs of Californians to cater to his biggest contributors, a message that resonated with many voters.

Labor leaders, who represent about 2 million union members, want to know exactly how Schwarzenegger will reconcile campaign promises to repeal the $4-billion vehicle license fee, raise no taxes and not cut major services.

As the remnants of labor’s $5-million anti-recall effort were being carted away from union halls Wednesday -- the phone banks dismantled, the “No on the Recall” posters torn down -- union leaders attempted to sound optimistic.

Bob Balgenorth, head of the 400,000-member State Building & Construction Trades Council, said he had sent a congratulatory note to Schwarzenegger.

Balgenorth, a leader of the anti-recall effort, said he thought that the governor-elect’s conciliatory words on election night extended to organized labor.


Still, he noted: “We don’t know where he stands on issues that are important to working people. We know where Pete Wilson was, but we don’t know where Schwarzenegger is. Time will tell whether he is his own man, as he says he is, or if he’s not.”

Wilson, Schwarzenegger’s campaign co-chairman, was governor before Davis.

Nathan Ballard, spokesman for Art Pulaski, head of the State Labor Federation, said Wednesday that unions expect Schwarzenegger to “honor us by giving us a seat at the table ... and we have no reason to think that he won’t.”

Davis was considered by many in the movement to be one of the best friends labor ever had. During his five years in office, he restored mandatory overtime after eight hours of work in any given day. Wilson had replaced the eight-hour workday law with one that made overtime mandatory after 40 hours of work in a week.

Davis also strengthened the “prevailing wage” laws that Wilson had lobbied to overturn. Such measures require top union wages to be paid for government work even by nonunion shops.

“From our point of view, Gray Davis had signed more bills for working people than most governors of the past century,” said Pulaski as he paced the halls of Davis’ election headquarters Tuesday night.

His voice raspy from days of shouting at anti-recall rallies, Pulaski tried to hold out hope that a final rush of his members to the polls would turn the day around.


But he knew it was over.

In the final weeks of the campaign, the state labor federation’s near round-the-clock phone banking by volunteers and staff appeared to have made a difference.

In a Times poll taken the week of Sept. 25, 43% of union members said they would vote against the recall and 54% said they would vote to oust Gov. Gray Davis.

By Tuesday, Times exit polls indicated that the numbers had flipped, with about 56% of union members voting against the recall.

Among all voters that percentage was just 45%, short of the 50% Davis needed to keep his job.

Solace for union leaders came in the margins.

“It would have been so far worse for Davis if labor hadn’t engaged,” said Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Assn., whose 55,000 members are not affiliated with the state federation.

Still, there was bad news for labor leaders who had hoped to deliver a substantial voting bloc from union households.


Typically in pace with union members themselves, people living in union households abandoned Davis at the same rate as the general population did.

“I think as a labor movement, we need to look inward and see how we can do a better job of connecting with our members,” said Mike Garcia, president of Service Employees International Union, Local 1877, which primarily represents immigrant janitors. Garcia said that beyond the core active unions: “I don’t think a lot of unions took this seriously.”

Even at their most upbeat, labor leaders had used words such as “uphill” to describe their effort to keep Davis in office.

Faced with his high level of unpopularity even among their own membership, union organizers focused their anti-recall effort more on trying to convince voters that the recall was bad for working people than on making a strong case for why Davis was good for them.

Balgenorth said he thought that labor’s turnout provided vindication for those who decided to fight hard.

“I think everyone can see that labor can deliver a vote,” he said. “But labor can’t do the impossible. There was a lot of anger at Gray Davis. I think that the anger was far and wide, and that came through loudly.”


Some who had worked to defeat the recall said Wednesday that they now feared the worst.

At Los Angeles County Firefighters Local 1014, where Davis appeared on election day, President Dave Gillotte said he still didn’t understand how Schwarzenegger would be able to repeal the car tax without cutting into local services. “We’re going to be looking at job cuts and [fire] station closures,” Gillotte said. “That’s my prediction.”


Times staff writer Matea Gold contributed to this report.