Internal Labor Strife Prevents California Tussle

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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) accompanied his "year of reform" announcement earlier this year with a warning that national labor unions would spend as much as $200 million to derail his effort to shake up the status quo in California government.

But the threat perceived by Schwarzenegger has yet to materialize, largely because of an event few could have foreseen: an internal crisis in the AFL-CIO (search). The turmoil led two major international unions to bolt the federation at its national convention earlier this summer.

As a result, major California unions have seen little backing from national headquarters in their campaign against ballot initiatives intended to rein in labor's power in state government. The initiatives include measures that would give Schwarzenegger new powers to cap spending; strip lawmakers of their power to draw legislative districts; and make it harder for public school teachers to get tenured.

"The split at the convention has definitely dominated the focus for national money and national players for a couple of months," Democratic consultant Larry Grisolano said. "There's a real sense of importance for what is going on in California, but the national thing has been a distraction for people's attention."

The lack of national labor money means California's local unions will have to pick up most of the tab for their campaigns, and they have already spent millions to discredit Schwarzenegger and his ballot measures.

Whether that will be enough to counter the campaign by Schwarzenegger and his supporters is unclear. The governor has set a goal of raising $50 million to promote the measures.

Campaign reports filed earlier this month show that just one national union has made a significant investment in the campaign to defeat Schwarzenegger's initiatives. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees gave $500,000 to the Alliance for a Better California (search), the largest coalition organized to fight the initiatives.

A separate measure pushed by Schwarzenegger's backers would require public employee unions to seek written permission from members before using their dues for political purposes. Schwarzenegger has not endorsed the initiative. Union leaders in California have called the so-called "paycheck protection" measure a virtual declaration of war.

The other three initiatives also challenge unions' status. Teachers strongly oppose both the tenure initiative and the spending cap, which could eliminate a mandated state funding level for education. And the redistricting measure could threaten the long-held majority status of Democrats, the chief beneficiaries of union money.

Democrats and their allied interest groups have complained they can't begin to match Schwarzenegger's fundraising prowess. The relative trickle of money flowing from national labor groups stands in marked contrast to the aggressive fundraising Schwarzenegger has done in and outside California.

He is immersed in a 17-city fundraising tour expected to net about $5 million for his special election campaign. The swing included a stop in Boston earlier this month, where some donors contributed $100,000 to sit in Schwarzenegger's box at a Rolling Stones concert at Fenway Park.

The money will add to the nearly $20 million he and his affiliated committees reported raising through the first half of the year.

Supporters of the union dues initiative and Schwarzenegger's agenda scoff at the notion that national unions are too distracted to get involved in the special election campaign. Too much is at stake for them to stay on the sidelines, said Lew Uhler, a longtime anti-tax activist who led the effort to put the union dues measure on the ballot.

"It's amusing and ironical that some of the union leadership constantly carp about 'rich corporations' and how they dominate the political scene," he said. "We'll be lucky to achieve the ratio of 3 or 4 to 1 compared to what they can raise in this campaign."

With the AFL-CIO facing an organizational crisis, many Democratic organizers say simply keeping all the parties together has, for now, become a more important focus than raising money.

"There's a lot of working out to be done in the house of labor, but there's a real interest among union leadership and members to do this campaign together and do it well," said Cecile Richards of America Votes, a coalition of national unions and other Democrat-leaning interest groups.