Union grip on CA elections slips

steve glazerAfter a lengthy streak of outsized influence, California’s private-sector unions have suffered a string of electoral setbacks — shaking up the balance of power in Democratic circles and giving Republicans reason for cheer even when facing down defeat.

A perfect storm

Although the trend has reached statewide, unions recently suffered their most painful blow in an East Bay race that Republicans strategically withdrew from. “Centrist Democrat Steve Glazer’s victory over more doctrinaire Democrat Susan Bonilla in a special election for a state Senate seat in the East Bay is just the latest, and perhaps most profound, evidence that public-employee unions are losing their control over the California Legislature,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

In that race, Glazer, a career Democrat and former adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown, drew vehement opposition from organized labor for his support of pension reform and his tough stance against striking workers at Bay Area Rapid Transit. As the pro-union left sided with Bonilla, Glazer scooped up more business-friendly Democrats — along with Republican voters, thanks to California’s open primary system. “The union issue was front and center in both races and voters in Democratic and Republican districts rejected union priorities,” concluded U-T San Diego’s Steven Greenhut.

A Republican pivot

Although, by ordinary measures, the outcome was an embarrassment for the GOP, Republicans were quick to declare a certain kind of victory. As Joel Pollack observed at Breitbart news, “Republican strategist Richard Temple told the Contra Costa Times that Glazer’s win was a ‘repudiation of union politics.’ For Tony Quinn of the Fox & Hounds blog, the race was also a revolt against political insiders, their endorsements and their junk mail. ‘This result shows there’s room for independent Democrats who don’t have to cower to labor,’ he adds.”

The rhetoric underscored how influential Republicans have found an opportunity to continue the party’s pivot away from immigration and social issues, which are often seen as playing especially poorly in the deep blue state. Even where unions appeared to be advancing, such as the fight over raising the minimum wage, opportunities have arisen for the state GOP to let its foes shoot themselves in the foot. In the latest instance, for example, “labor leaders, who were among the strongest supporters of the citywide minimum wage increase approved last week by the Los Angeles City Council, are advocating last-minute changes to the law that could create an exemption for companies with unionized workforces,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Leadership questions

With Republicans looking to exploit the Democrat divide over labor issues, leading Democrats in Sacramento faced a sharp choice over how to respond. Party leaders’ frustration with Glazer has been clear. But they have not signaled how cold of a shoulder he will receive in the state Senate.

Some analysts have seen evidence that Democrats will seek to shore up their pro-business support by making Glazer welcome. As Dan Walters noted at the Sacramento Bee, “Marin County’s Marc Levine and Santa Monica’s Richard Bloom, two other Democrats who defeated union-backed Assembly incumbents in 2012 with business support (and Glazer’s indirect help), were not punished in that house.”

“Their wins hinted that when Democrats duel Democrats in relatively affluent, sophisticated areas, union support doesn’t guarantee victory, and business can engage effectively. Glazer proved it, and that’s the true import of his victory, given the perpetual war between business and liberal groups, including unions, over so-called ‘job killer’ bills and other legislation.”

But conflict between union-backed lawmakers and reform Democrats has already reached an unheard-of level of intensity. Recently, union-backed members on the Assembly Education Committee torpedoed Assembly Bill 1495, a teacher tenure reform bill introduced by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego. Then, as Walters recounted, “when the committee chairman, former teacher Patrick O’Donnell, said he wanted to shift elements of her bill into his own, union-backed teacher evaluation measure, she snapped, ‘You’re going to rape me, rape my bill, and take it as your own?’”

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