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November 25, 2020

Guest view: Unions vs. business on California ballot

By Dan Walters

The Capitol’s most enduring conflict pits California business interests against a quartet of liberal factions—unions, environmental groups, consumer advocates and personal injury attorneys.

Annually, the four present their legislative agendas via bills authored by allied Democratic legislators, generally seeking more spending, more regulation and/or more opportunities for litigation.

Annually, business and employer lobbies mount opposition to the quartet’s measures, claiming they will adversely affect jobs and the economy.

Despite Democrats’ control of the Legislature, business has been surprisingly successful over the years in fending off the quartet’s agendas. That record explains, in part, why three of this year’s 12 statewide ballot measures are high-dollar battles between business and unions.

Proposition 15, arguably the ballot’s most far-reaching measure, is a case in point.

Ever since Proposition 13, California’s iconic property tax limit, passed in 1978, public employee unions have yearned to repeal, or at least modify, its provisions. However, with polls indicating Proposition 13’s continuing popularity, the Capitol’s Democratic politicians are unwilling to directly attack it.

That reluctance forced union leaders to use the initiative process and they finally settled on a “split roll” in Proposition 15 that would remove some, but not all, of Proposition 13’s limits from commercial property.

Proponents saw Proposition 15 as the path of least resistance to changing Proposition 13, but as the voting deadline nears, it’s not faring particularly well. Support in the latest UC Berkeley IGS poll is seemingly stuck just under 50 percent while opposition is increasing. The opposition campaign, financed largely by business and real estate interests, seems to be scoring with arguments that Proposition 15 is just the first step toward repealing Proposition 13.

Proposition 22 is an even more direct business-union conflict. Sponsored by Uber, Lyft and other app-based companies, it would exempt them from a state Supreme Court ruling and a new state law that would force the firms to convert their drivers from contractors to employees.

Proposition 22’s sponsors tried to get a compromise deal in the Legislature that would create a new category of workers who aren’t payroll employees but have some benefits, but unions and their legislative allies weren’t willing to go there. 

Polls say it’s too close to call, but whether it passes or fails, Proposition 22 will go into the books as the most expensive ballot measure ever to be placed before California voters, with spending, mostly by proponents, topping $200 million.

However, as with Proposition 15, another very expensive measure, the stakes in the outcome run into the billions, so campaign spending is, in relative terms, just pocket lint.

Proposition 23 is the third business-union clash, affecting just one economic sector, for-profit dialysis clinics.

It’s the second time that one union, SEIU-UHW West, has sought to impose new regulations on dialysis clinics in apparent hopes of forcing them to recognize the union. The previous effort, Proposition 8 in 2018, failed and while Proposition 23 takes a different approach, the underlying union-management conflict is unchanged.

The campaigns by both sides ignore those dynamics and stress, instead, that they are just interested in the well-being of Californians with kidney failure who depend on dialysis to remain alive.

Dan Walters wrote this column for calmatters.org.

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