No sooner were opinion polls showing the labor-led campaign to defeat California Proposition 32 gaining ground by 10 points earlier this month, than the multi-billionaire Koch brothers dropped $4 million to shore up support for the anti-union measure on the November ballot.
Prop 32 would ban both unions and corporations from using payroll-deducted funds for political purposes in California. Meanwhile, corporations would have a free ride to raise unlimited funds to support pro-corporate candidates.
While payroll deductions are vital to unions' political activity, corporations usually rely instead on company funds and donations from executives.
The pro-32 corporate backers call their initiative the "Stop Special Interest Money Now Act."
But Kevin Norton of southern California IBEW Local 11 characterized the measure as "a thinly veiled attempt to destroy labor."
Two previous attempts to pass similar initiatives, in 1998 and 2005, were voted down by California voters.
However, the California Labor Federation and its affiliates are taking no chances this time around.
The "Stop the Special Exemptions Act" campaign includes public and private sector unions in broad coalition with prominent civil rights and civil liberties groups, police associations, health care advocates, environmentalists, educators, and religious groups.
Prop 32 threatens the union movement's capacity to advocate politically in the state for its members and their families as well as for the people generally facing difficult economic, social, and environmental challenges.
The outcome of the battle over Prop 32 has broad implications nationally because California's labor movement represents more than two million members out of a total of more than 14 million nationally, making California's union membership the largest in the nation.
"Twenty years from now, this will be a point that we'll all look back and say 'This is where we lost it,' or 'This is where we turned it around.' Let's turn it around," IBEW's Norton aptly summarized what labor and other progressive social movements see as the stakes in this battle.
The coalition is enlisting the help of a growing army of volunteers, churning up the calls and other grassroots activities, while making use of social networking and other online tools to reach voters.
As with other Prop 32 corporate backers, the Koch brothers' latest crusade to pass Prop 32 stands to vastly increase their corporate fortunes and power.
For years Koch Industries channeled money to various California lawmakers through its Georgia-Pacific subsidiary, with an eye to helping enact legislation that would loosen industrial regulation and thus enhance its profit margins, according to Matthew Fleischer of Frying Pan News.
Between 2009 and 2010, for example, Georgia-Pacific funneled donations of $1,000 or more to the campaigns of 25 different California state Senators and Assembly members.
But Prop 32, while banning unions and (on the surface) corporations from contributing directly or indirectly to candidates and candidate-controlled committees, would exempt corporate subsidiaries like Koch Industries' Georgia-Pacific.
As a limited liability company (LLC), Georgia-Pacific would not be hampered by the proposition's restrictions, since an LLC is not considered a corporation, much less a union.
With justification the California Labor Federation charges that Prop 32 would "severely restrict union members from having a voice in the political process" but would "exempt secretive Super PACs and corporate front groups, which can raise unlimited amounts of money from corporate special interests and billionaires to support their candidates."
In 2010, Koch Industries subsidiary Flint Hills Resources donated $1 million to support Proposition 23, which would have overturned California's landmark climate change prevention statute, AB 32.
Koch Industries complained that stiff clean emissions standards "would cripple refiners that rely on heavy crude feedstocks," on which oil interests like the Koch's thrive.
Proposition 32 went down to defeat in no small part thanks to labor's role, which would have been seriously circumscribed had the earlier versions of Prop 32 been in effect at the time.
Photo: Protesters in Rancho Mirage, Calif. demonstrate against the Koch brothers. Crystal Chatham/AP & The Desert Sun