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Unions challenge Wall Street sway over politicians

San Francisco Chronicle, 6/24/11

By Joe Garofoli

California’s nurses union stared down former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for trying to scale down the union’s political influence in 2005 and helped sabotage the gubernatorial campaign of another Republican, Meg Whitman, last year.

This year, the 165,000-member National Nurses United, which includes the California Nurses Association, is ready to take on politicians, including Democrats, for siding with Wall Street interests instead of those of working people, executive director Rose Ann DeMoro said this week.

The union is ready to begin a campaign reminiscent of the Tea Party’s 2009 summer of action, with nurses planning to flood key con­gressional districts in August, when members are meeting with constituents, and ask lawmakers a simple question: Are you with Wall Street or with us?

“It’s not about Obama or the Republicans — it’s about the system,” said DeMoro, who wants to narrow the power gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else.

“You can’t accomplish that by going through the political parties.”

New tactics, alliances

The anti-Wall Street show of force this summer is one example of how unions, whose pensions and collective bargaining rights have been targets in several states this year, are engaging in new tactics and alliances in an effort to build political clout.

The state’s largest public service workers union, whose membership is predominantly Democratic, is trying to recruit moderate Republican candidates, while California trade unions are joining forces with dentists and doctors in an odd pairing.

The overarching theme: Frustration that the political system has become too polarized and stubborn about working to benefit anyone but the wealthy.

In Wall Street, DeMoro hopes to find a target that resonates across party lines.

Median CEO pay jumped 27 percent in 2010, compared with 2 percent raises for other workers, according to USA Today and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The bigger issue, DeMoro said, is that politicians feel little urgency to increase regulations or taxes on corporations.

In California, incomes of the wealthiest 1 percent of earners grew 81 percent from 1978 to 2008, while incomes for the 20 percent of the state’s lowestpaid workers dropped 11.5 percent in the same period, according to the nonpartisan California Budget Project.

Unions under attack

Labor unions “are losing members and are under attack, so they’d be foolish not to try something like this,” said Jaime Regalado, director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. “This should be one of the last wakeup calls they get.”

Also driving the unions in California is the redrawing of congressional and state legislative boundaries in 2012, which will scramble the state’s political map. At the same time, the state will see the full effect of its new top-two primary system, where the two leading finishers in the primary, regardless of party, move on to the general election.

With those changes in mind, an independent expenditure committee formed this month whose members are a surprising alliance of organizations representing physicians, Realtors, dentists, trade union workers and others.

Calling themselves Californians for Fiscal Accountability and Responsibility, they expect to have at least $500,000 in the bank by next month — and between $3 million and $5 million to back candidates in the 2012 primary.

They’re planning to support a handful of candidates — Democrats and Republicans — who are not the extreme of either party.

“We don’t agree on many things, but what we do agree on is that we’ve got to elect members of the Legislature who are there to solve problems — and not fall into the same partisan lines,” said Cesar Diaz, legislative director for the State Building and Construction Trades Council.

“What you’re seeing are that a lot of people are frustrated.

Sacramento is broken,” said Paul Hegyi, a Republican who is the vice president of political affairs for the 35,000-member California Medical Association and treasurer of the new alliance.

Courting Republicans

This month, California’s 700,000-member Service Employees International Union, the state’s largest, announced it was forming a political action committee focused on electing moderate Republicans.

“I hope that maybe the California Republican Party can move closer to the middle,” said John Orr of Anaheim, an SEIU member who is a parking officer at Cal State Fullerton and a lifelong Republican.

The SEIU was vague about how much campaign money it intends to raise or how many races it plans to target, prompting California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro to be dubious that the union really wants to elect Republicans. Union leaders didn’t contact him before beginning their effort, he said.

“This isn’t about reforming the Republican Party,” Del Beccaro said Thursday. “This PAC is about raising taxes.”

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