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Oakland at Center of Anti-Prop 32 Campaign

Posted: Oct 16, 2012


OAKLAND, Calif. -- It's a sunny Saturday morning and Jason Gumato is in North Oakland knocking on the doors of fellow union members, urging them to vote no on Proposition 32, a law that would, among other things, prohibit labor unions in California from using money deducted from their member’s paychecks to lobby state officeholders.

"I don't mind spending my time doing this," says Gumato. "I have things I'd like to do with my family today, errands that I need to get done, but this is just too important to sit out."

On this day, Gumato is just one of many electricians representing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) who are going door to door in neighborhoods throughout Oakland, driven by a fear of what Prop 32 would do to undermine their political power if approved by voters on November 6th.

“It would take away our voice in Sacramento,” he says, as he leaves a “No on Prop 32” green tote bag on the doorstep of a retired IBEW member’s home. “We gotta stand up and say we’re not going to let that happen.”

If passed, Proposition 32 would prohibit both labor unions and private corporations from making direct salary contributions to support political candidates or ballot measures. But with a heavy focus on the elimination of payroll deductions, analysts contend the measure equates to an attack on unions, which rely almost exclusively on member contributions to fund their political campaigns.

Supporters of Prop 32, meanwhile, have argued that unions wield too much influence over government decisions via political contributions.

Recognizing the high stakes, a number of influential and progressive labor groups in Oakland, including Gumato’s union, have coalesced to put their collective shoulder to the grindstone in a quest to defeat Prop 32.

“It’s so critical that (organized labor) have the ability to speak to our officeholders in the state capital, so we’re going full throttle,” says Josie Camacho, executive secretary-treasure for the Alameda Labor Council.

Oakland, home to some of the most powerful union organizations in California, such as the California Nurses Association, and a plethora of strong, progressive, grassroots advocacy and activist groups, perhaps not surprisingly now finds itself at the center of the campaign to defeat Prop 32.

"Oakland is definitely important,” confirms Phillip Ung, a spokesman for California Common Cause, which has come out strongly against the measure. “Most of the no votes will come from Oakland, the (rest of the) Bay Area and Los Angeles."

But when it comes to political activism, says Ung, Oakland stands head and shoulders above the rest.

"Activism is part of the fabric of Oakland," he says. "You just don't get that in Sacramento."

In some ways, the organizing efforts against Prop 32 reconfirm Oakland – a city of roughly 400,000 that was recently referred to in the New York Times as “the last refuge of radical America” – as the heartbeat of progressive politics in California today. Its large labor unions are strong and organized; residents, many of them working-class poor, consistently vote progressive, and segments of the community have shown a willingness to speak out or demonstrate publicly when such actions are deemed necessary.

Last fall, Oakland had one of the most visible and active Occupy movements in the country. Oakland was also the city that spawned the Black Panther Party and other radical political organizations in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Even Oakland mayor Jean Quan cut her political teeth as a prominent UC Berkeley activist and later as a labor union organizer. A few days before being sworn in as mayor, Quan demonstrated in front of the downtown Rite Aide in solidarity with drugstore workers who were striking.

“We have no problem speaking up,” Camacho says. “We have no problem telling elected officials and others that it’s important to support working families in Oakland and in California.”

DeAnn McEwen, co-president of the California Nurses Association, located in downtown Oakland, says the city is a perfect fit for the powerful union.

"It's a working class town that has a lot of fight," she says. "It's proud of its labor history and people here would be greatly affected if Prop 32 was allowed to pass. [We would be] put at a disadvantage, when it comes to advocating for our members and our patients.”

The bid to defeat Prop 32 has led labor unions, grassroots groups, and faith-based organizations in the city to work in a coordinated effort, sharing resources and strategies.

“This is not just about what happens to labor unions,” says Nikki Fortunato Bas,
executive director of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy. “The reason why so many groups are getting together to defeat this measure is because we know that it would be detrimental to the poor, detrimental to families and detrimental to the middle class.”

Prop 32 is just the latest in a series of similar state ballot measures proposed in recent years that have sought to curb organized labor’s political influence in Sacramento.

In 2005, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special election to pass a series of measures, including Proposition 75, which would have made unions require permission from members before having union dues withheld for political purposes. The measure was rejected, and the California Nurses Association played a significant role in its defeat.

In 1998, then-Gov. Pete Wilson supported Proposition 226 – a similar “paycheck protection” measure -- which was also defeated.

The current battle has awakened the city's labor leaders out of their slumber, says Camacho.

“Prop 32 has gotten us off our asses. It’s really gotten us to go out into the field and talk to our members, form important alliances and really work together in an important way.”

As the election draws near, Oakland labor groups and progressive organizations say they believe California voters will see Prop 32 for what it is.

“I think we’re doing a good job of telling voters why Prop 32 is bad,” Camacho says. “I think voters are beginning to understand that this measure is unfair and would give corporations and big business more power in Sacramento.”

For his part, Ung also thinks the measure will be defeated on November 6th, but isn’t taking anything for granted.

"(Prop 32) is going to lose, but it's going to be close because now you're seeing a lot of money from the yes side coming in from out-of-state.”




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