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Governor, Public Workers’ Unions Square Off for a Battle Over Clout

Times Staff Writers

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and California’s public employee unions appeared headed Thursday for a politically crippling fight over labor’s continued clout in the Capitol.

Lewis K. Uhler, a Sacramento anti-tax crusader, said he began submitting to county elections offices 600,000 voter signatures he has collected for an initiative that could hobble the political potency of public employee unions. The initiative needs 373,816 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot in a possible special election.

The measure would require unions to annually obtain written permission from each member to use their dues for political donations. That money has been the most important source of financial support for Democrats in Sacramento. Unions narrowly defeated a broader initiative in 1998 that would have placed the same requirement on private and public unions.

In large part to avert Uhler’s proposition, the unions have been working feverishly to avoid the special election Schwarzenegger is threatening to call for later this year. Noting that the campaign has been underwritten by some of Schwarzenegger’s closest business allies, they have made it clear that they will blame the governor -- who has not taken a public position on the measure -- if it gets on the ballot.

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“If the Uhler initiative goes on the ballot and public employee unions have to fight for their right to participate in politics in California, that’s going to be nuclear war,” said Jim Hard, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 1000.

Unions are preparing to reciprocate by backing initiatives that would lower prescription drug prices and partly re-regulate energy utilities, two measures Schwarzenegger vetoed last year. Their allies are planning to submit petitions on those measures in the next few days.

“If he’s going to call a special election, let’s give consumers the right to legislate for themselves what the governor refuses to do,” said Art Pulaski, the chief of California’s AFL-CIO.

As a direct response to the Uhler measure, the unions have also been readying an initiative designed to devastate corporate political influence in California by requiring stockholders to specifically authorize donations to candidates and campaigns. The unions will not be able to collect the necessary signatures in time to qualify for a fall special election -- the practical deadline is today -- but say they will place it on a ballot in one of the two scheduled elections in 2006.

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Many Republican strategists believe Uhler’s measure, which supporters call “paycheck protection,” would dilute labor’s energies if Schwarzenegger decides to press his agenda through a special election.

“I don’t know to what extent the unions have the ability to have a full-on assault to the Uhler initiative while also attacking some of the governor’s other initiatives,” said Joel Fox, co-chairman of Citizens to Save California, the business coalition set up to advance Schwarzenegger’s three initiatives.

The governor’s allies started submitting petitions for those initiatives Wednesday, beginning with a proposition to toughen requirements for tenure for public school teachers. Today his allies plan to begin submitting petitions for a measure to institute spending curbs on the state budget.

On Thursday, the governor traveled to the Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove, where he tore red tape from a lawn to illustrate his call for stripping state lawmakers of the power to draw boundaries for legislative and congressional districts. The governor argues that the arrangement has allowed incumbents in both parties to win easy reelection because legislators stack each district.

“The politicians have divided a neighborhood,” Schwarzenegger said as he announced that petitions on the measure were being submitted. “They’ve divided cities, towns and people. And this is what we want to eliminate. This is why we need redistricting.”

However, the governor’s aides later conceded that the tape -- meant to represent the border between two Assembly districts -- actually stood solidly within the 15th Assembly District, a highly competitive region won by a Republican last November.

Though unions and Democrats oppose the governor’s measures, the acrimony over the Uhler initiative is already causing repercussions.

Democratic lawmakers and others say the unions have become less willing to negotiate with the governor, something that could complicate efforts to cut deals not only on the state budget but also on a number of other policy fights, including Schwarzenegger’s attempt to pare back retirement benefits for state workers. An aggressive union campaign caused Schwarzenegger to abandon an initiative version of that measure last month, but the governor still hopes to cut a deal in the Legislature.

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Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) said that the unions “want to avoid an election, but the moment the Uhler [initiative] gets submitted, they figure they don’t want to negotiate; they want to go to the ballot and defeat that and anything else put on the ballot.”


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