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Proposition Me, Why Doncha?

If there's one thing Gov. Schwarzenegger has done, it's unite working folk in the fight of their political lives

By Sarah Phelan

It's not every day you see firefighters and police officers join hands with teachers and nurses in the political arena, especially not against a major hero of the action movie genre. But that's what happened in Santa Cruz this September, when firefighter Neal Aronson stood before the City Council and presented a resolution on behalf of the Santa Cruz City Firefighters (IAFF Local 1716) and a coalition of teachers, nurses and police officers--a resolution that took on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's attitudes toward public employees and the motives behind his special election.

Seeking recognition and support for the "dedication and hard work" that public employees perform in the face of what they perceive as "relentless attacks from the governor," the resolution states that "public employees are not special interests as the governor asserts" and paints Schwarzenegger's special election as "a huge financial burden on the county" and "an outright attack on working people."

The resolution, which the council passed unanimously, also recommends a "no" vote on three propositions on the Nov. 8 ballot: Prop. 74, which extends by three years the period that public school teachers must wait to gain permanent status; Prop. 75, which puts restrictions on public union dues and political contributions; and Prop. 76, which gives the governor unprecedented budget-cutting powers.

No Retreat

The Santa Cruz City Council has a reputation for being a leader in political movements, be it legalizing medical marijuana, impeaching President Bush or bringing the National Guard back from Iraq. But this time, through its unanimous endorsement of the firefighters' resolution, it was, for once, simply getting behind a statewide movement of workers for whom Schwarzenegger's policies have increasingly become a turn-off.

Take Aronson, who says he was inspired to bring the aforementioned resolution before the council after he attended an anti-Schwarzenegger demonstration this May--a protest that covered the state capitol grounds in Sacramento and even spilled across the street.

"It was so stirring to see all the people that Arnie has brought together by attacking them," says Aronson, who was always opposed to Gov. Gray Davis' recall and felt from the start that Schwarzenegger was a wolf in sheep's clothing. Yet, for all his initial skepticism, Aronson admits that even he was surprised at what Schwarzenegger came out with, once he got in power.

"I was surprised that he turned out to be such a sophisticated, devious politician," says Aronson, noting that Schwarzenegger recently endorsed Prop. 75, a move Aronson hopes will ultimately doom the measure that supporters are calling "the paycheck protection act," a title that Aronson says is "terribly misleading."

"They should call it the 'paycheck deception act,'" he says, "because it won't protect anyone's paycheck."

Dues Blues

"Prop. 75 won't protect union members," Aronson continues, "since they already have the right not to contribute to union politics or to opt out at any time. So no one is being coerced at a basic level. Every union is a democratic organization. I've never heard of any union leaders who are smoking cigars in a backroom and making all the decisions. We're the ones who vote. Sometimes you find yourself in the minority, sometimes in the majority. And the more involved you are, the more say you have."

Aronson notes that his local chapter doesn't have the capacity to give dollars to political causes "because it doesn't have a political action committee." He says dollars given to the California Professional Firefighters Union or the International Association of Firefighters can, however, be used for those purposes, including the fight to protect public safety funds, death, disability and retirement benefits, staffing ratios and line-of-duty investigations--in short, to lobby Congress and the state Assembly on bills that try to make firefighters' jobs safer and more effective. "Sure, our dues often go to Democratic candidates, but that's because they tend to support labor and firefighter issues," Aronson says. "People think about unions and they tend to think about greed, at least that's how Schwarzenegger is trying to paint it, but mostly we're about better public service."

Muscling Up

To understand why Schwarzenegger's endorsement of Prop. 75 could be the kiss of death, it helps to travel back in time to December 2004. Up until that moment, Schwarzenegger was riding high in the polls, buoyed by a public that liked him because--well, mostly because he was the Terminator.

But then he went and depicted a group of nurses at a women's conference as being among the special interests who "don't like me in Sacramento because I am always kicking their butts."

At which point, all nursing hell broke loose.

As Barbara Williams, who is a member of the California Nurses' Association and a psychiatric nurse at Dominican Hospital, puts it, "I bet Arnie has regretted saying that every day since, because up until that moment, no one was arguing with him much because he had so much public support and popularity."

But now he'd gone and insulted a group of nurses, who represented the 60,000-strong CNA--a group that was already suing the governor over his executive order to roll back patient-safety standards in state hospitals.

"Nurses started finding out where his fundraising was happening and following him," says Williams. She recalls how teachers, police officers, prison guards and firefighters also started coming out against the governor, as he targeted health care, human services and education through proposed budget cuts, all while promoting a "pension reform plan," which turned out to be, a la George W. Bush, a polite way of really saying, "Let's go privatize the state public employee pension funds."

Indeed, an analysis by state Attorney General Bill Lockyer showed that Schwarzenegger's "reform" plan would eliminate death and disability benefits--leaving families of police officers and firefighters nearly destitute. Little wonder then that demonstrators greeted Schwarzenegger at every stop of his March 2005 fundraising tour. Or that by May, public union employees like Aronson and Williams were amassing in thousands to protest what they saw as a string of attacks on working stiffs.

"When the nurses arrived, it was like the parting of the Red Sea," Williams recalls. "Everyone made a passageway for us to come through and people started applauding. And now people dog Arnie at every single place he goes, including that Rolling Stones concert. It's really been hurting him in the amount of funds he's been able to raise and in the polls, where his popularity has fallen."

All of which is good news to Williams, who believes all the Schwarzenegger-endorsed initiatives have serious ramifications and are part of a broader scheme to break the U.S. labor movement.

"California is being used as a test case," Williams says.

For his part, Aronson is hopeful that the polls, which initially had Prop. 75 looking like the only one of the Schwarzenegger-backed measures to have a hope of passing, will shift, as people get more educated.

"The nurses weren't fighting for higher wages or benefits, but for better staffing ratios, which would improve patient safety," he observes. "And the teachers weren't fighting for higher wages, but for more money for schools. And we're screaming because he's attacking death and disability benefits for widows and orphans. All these groups truly care about serving the public."

Most of all, Aronson fears that losing this particular battle will make it harder for working people to fight for their rights in the future.

Noting that corporations already outspend unions by 24-to-1, Aronson observes that when the governor tried to take away public service employees' pensions, "we had the strength, unity and resources to force Arnie to back down, but if approved by voters, Prop. 75 will steal our voices, so Arnie and his allies will have a license to take away our hard-earned retirement, because we won't have the resources necessary to fight him anymore."

The Last Republican in Town

Finding a Republican in leftward-leaning Santa Cruz who is willing to go on the political record is like trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack. Luckily, there's always Carolyn Busenhart, a self-described "concerned citizen and sometimes political activist."

A hairdresser for 47 years, Busenhart supports the first six initiatives on the ballot, all of which Schwarzenegger has endorsed, and all of which the labor movement is opposing with the help of a "Nix the First Six" mantra.

Asked why she is supporting Prop. 74, Busenhart cites the "dismal failure of our public schools" as evidence that "it's time to do something different"--which to her mind involves making teachers go for longer periods on probation.

"The teachers say, 'Well, we don't really have tenure now,' so why are they worried? And the majority of states already have three years of tenure," Busenhart quips. "Teachers say, 'If we do this, there'll be a shortage of teachers.' And I say, 'Oh yeah? Well, great. They only get to work 180 days a year, and they work less hours than you or I, but they are paid full salaries."

To illustrate her point, Busenhart notes that she's never had any bank tellers or construction workers doing their job while sitting in her hairdresser's chair.

"But I do get teachers correcting their homework," she says. "They have it a lot easier than they like people to think. I assert there'll be thousands of people still wanting to be teachers and the pickings will be better."

As for Prop. 75, Busenhart trots out the argument that the reason the unions are so worried about it is "because they know they are taking money from people, who have to pay their dues to have voting rights, but then find the union is using their money to support a measure they are against. I hear all about it from county employees when they sit in my chair."

She does acknowledge that corporations spend shareholders' dollars without their permission (a system that's currently under fire by a Democrat-backed petition that signature gatherers hope to qualify for the 2006 election).

"But it's a lot easier to take your money out of a corporation," Busenhart says. "It's a little hard to take your job and put your dollars somewhere else."

Asked about Prop. 76, Busenhart opines that the state is in financial trouble, "because it isn't living within its means. We're supposed to have a balanced budget, but most years what we see is a proposed budget, which then has to be cut, because we're planning to spend more than we bring in. All that money comes from taxpayers like you and me--and we just don't have any more to give."

Data Mining

For most people, discussing arguments for and against initiatives that deal with budgetary matters is about as attractive an idea as having a root canal. Luckily for Santa Cruzans, Assemblyman John Laird (D–Santa Cruz) is the chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, a position that has trained him in the subtle art of making financial matters sound comprehensible.

"I was at this discussion of Prop. 76," recalls Laird, "and this man got up and said he'd read the governor's statement when he vetoed the gay marriage bill and how the governor said that it was because he had to respect the will of the California people. 'So,' asks this man, 'how come the governor is trying to undo Prop. 98?'"

As Laird explains, if passed, Prop. 76 would override Prop. 98, thus eliminating California's voter-approved guaranteed funding level for K–14 education.

"What this will do to education is not a Trojan horse," says Laird. "The cuts are out in the open. It means that $3.8 billion, which is the recurring amount owed to schools each year out of Prop. 98 funds, will be cut.

"Prop. 76's proponents believe we have deficits and budget problems that need to be addressed. But Prop. 76 in its substance does nothing to address them."

Laird says that during a recent legislative hearing, he asked Prop. 76's proponents, 'Who wrote this initiative?'"

"All they would say was 'a group of people.'

"And then one of them, who was a California Taxpayer Association guy, said that this initiative would be good for schools. Now, everyone says that Prop. 76 is to do with the state deficit, so I asked, 'How will this deal with next year's structural deficit,' and they answered, 'Well, it won't.'

"Since this initiative is a keystone of the governor's special election, I asked, 'So, why the need to put this on the ballot this year?' They said, 'You'll have to ask the governor himself.'"

The second part of Prop. 76 that Laird finds troubling is that it imposes a rolling spending cap, based on the average growth rates of revenues in the past three years.

"This does a counterintuitive thing. When the economy is getting worse, we'd get to spend much more than we have, and when the economy is improving, we'd be held back by the past few years."

Last but not least, Laird is bothered by a provision that would allow the governor to cut the budget midyear--including labor and vendor contracts.

"Theoretically, we'd be doing that to cut costs, but pretty soon people are going to be demanding more to cover the risk of getting cut midyear," Laird opines.

All of which would make California's governor one of the most powerful in the nation, in terms of budgetary power.

"And quite possibly the most powerful," muses Laird. "The irony is that over and over, the governor talks about 'the people.'"

Divided State

For his part, Aronson can understand why working folks' unions are being targeted.

"Schwarzenegger's strategy is divide and conquer. By targeting public unions, you tap into that sector of the general public who, on hearing that public employees get better benefits and paid holidays, immediately think, 'How come I don't get those when I'm already paying those people's wages?'"

To Aronson's mind, things would be smoother if everyone was clamoring for single-payer health insurance.

"Instead, we are being attacked for our public employees pensions, which are part of a negotiated contract, which was won at the cost of higher wages."

That said, he recognizes that people not terribly involved in unions don't understand that the money is going to fight for rights and benefits, which is why he also believes Prop. 75 is a Republican power grab.

"It would take away a large part of the Democratic money base," he explains. "By and large, corporation money is spent to take away the gains that workers have won over the years. A lot of nonunion people don't realize that most of their job benefits, their five-day work week and paid holidays, came from the blood, sweat and tears of union workers who demonstrated--and sometimes got killed--for these rights."

Old School

It's 5:30pm on a Friday, that TGIF moment when working Americans hope to break free from the hamster wheel of work and please themselves, not their bosses, at least for the next 48 hours.

Yes, it's le weekend, that two-day holiday brought to you by the labor movement, but, for teachers Malcolm Terence and Mark Levy, the next few weekends are promising to be anything but restful. Granted, the pair, who both work at Santa Cruz High and belong to the California Federation of Teachers, have spent the past hour enjoying a pint at Rosie McCann's on Pacific Avenue. But they've interspersed their swigs of ale with explanations of why they'll be voting "no" on most of the initiatives in Gov. Schwarzenegger's Nov.8 special election--a discussion they plan to continue over the weekend by walking precincts to get out the vote this fall.

The thought that he'll be walking precincts, instead of hanging out with his wife this weekend, makes Terence take another sip of beer.

"It's a reminder of why money is so important in politics," 'he says. "Which is what makes Prop. 75 so dangerous. Because what do unions support? No one is as organized and politically effective as unions are. And our union is the biggest."

Punish the New

Both close to retirement, Terence and Levy also oppose Prop. 74, which not only more than doubles the waiting period before teachers can gain tenure, but also takes away the right of teachers who are already tenured to have a hearing before getting fired.

"What does Prop. 74 have to do with saving money?" Terence wants to know. "It's not linked to improving student learning or cutting costs. Instead, it scapegoats teachers. Especially new teachers, because most teachers look like me and Mark--and we're not kids."

Levy, who's been teaching art at Santa Cruz High for the past 34 years, nods. As he explains, teachers currently coming into Santa Cruz schools are already on probation for the first two years.

Noting that locally he and his colleagues have taken less pay in trade for the privilege of living here, he observes that's it's increasingly difficult to secure dedicated teachers. "They can't afford to stay; they can't afford a home here ... , which is too bad, because public schools, as opposed to private, charter and parochial schools, are one of the last places where we mix the classes, where the unwritten curriculum is more powerful than the written curriculum. Well, at least sometimes."

As for Prop. 76 (which supporters claim will fix California's broken budget system by allowing the governor to limit state spending "without any checks and balances," and which detractors claim was written by the president of a big business group that lobbies for tobacco, oil and insurance interests), both teachers see it as a dangerous measure that gives the governor huge unilateral powers.

"It'll let Arnie cut school funding by over $4 billion a year," says Terence; "it'll let him get out of repaying the $2 million he borrowed from schools last year; and it'll eliminate the guaranteed funding for K–14 education under Prop. 98. And it sets up the governor to unilaterally reduce appropriations, including employee compensation and state contracts midyear."

Greed and Arrogance

One of the things that peeves firefighters, nurses and teachers the most in all this special election squabbling is how they, and not the big corporations, are being targeted for "greed" and "arrogance."

Yes, these were the words that Prop. 75's major sponsor Lewis Uhler, a former John Birch Society activist who campaigned for Bush's Social Security privatization plan, used to describe public union employees in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle.

But as these so-called "greedy" and "arrogant" workers point out, only a small percentage of their individual union dues goes to politics anyway. Santa Cruz firefighter Mike Venezio says that only 10 percent of his dues go to political campaigns.

As Terence explained over beers at Rosie McCann's, "It costs millions to get an initiative on the ballot, let alone advertise and promote it. And there are rich Republicans out there who can put millions in. Our members know if they band together, they'll have the strength of one rich Republican. So, we're a threat to those wealthy people and rich corporations."

As for claims by Prop. 75's supporters that the unions have bought the Democratic Party, Terence says people should take the classic advice of following the money.

"Big business gives," he says, "and so do the unions. The system is awash in money. But the solution isn't to shut off one of the few progressive voices in California politics. If you were going to pull big money completely out of politics and that included the unions, I'd go for it, but Prop. 75 is one-sided. It's unfair."

Just Say No

As the former director of SEIU Local 415, Nora Hochman knows this isn't the first time that the California labor movement has come under Prop. 75–style attack.

"Prop. 75 is the son of Prop. 226," says Hochman, referring to a measure that was defeated in 1998 and would have affected all union members, regardless of whether they were in the public or private sector.

A political strategist herself, Hochman finds it logical that this time the attack is focused on the public sector, "since in many people's minds, the public sector is synonymous with an anonymous machine that takes money and gives nothing back."

And while that image has undoubtedly changed somewhat this year, thanks to nurses, teachers, firefighters and police protesting Schwarzenegger's public appearances, Hochman finds the strategy troubling.

"I guess, Arnie got tired of being dogged at every public appearance," says Hochman, who sees Prop. 75 as a classic "We're gonna get 'em" initiative.

Beyond that, Hochman thinks the most disturbing aspect of Prop. 75 is the notion that the general electorate should decide what membership organizations do, or don't do, with their money.

"Should we also vote on how the Sierra Club and the Shriners and the Masons and the Lions elect their leadership and spend their money?" Hochman asks. "Nowhere in the history of America has this happened. If there was ever a time to wake up and smell the coffee, regardless of how you feel about Schwarzenegger, or what party you are affiliated with, this is it."

She points out that the drug companies just spent a total of $78 million to put Prop. 78 on the ballot (the initiative that would allow pharmaceutical companies to lower their prices voluntarily) and to stop Prop. 79 (the initiative that would make that price-lowering mandatory).

She also points out that the drug companies' $78 million expenditure on campaign finance is equaled only by the cost to taxpayers of the entire special election. Which is troubling considering that Prop. 75 would restrict the unions in their fight against such initiatives, but wouldn't stop drug companies from spending even vaster sums of money on upcoming initiatives and elections.

"Unions support Prop. 79, which attempts to force pharmaceutical companies to lower their prices, a move that would save seniors, families, small businesses and the state millions each year," says Hochman, who believes all of Schwarzenegger's initiatives make perfect sense when viewed as a last-ditch attempt to find a groundswell of support--and thereby improve the governor's chances of running for re-election in 2006.

"What better way than to attack the unions? This state is a great spot for worker bashing," she says.

Red Light

All of which leaves Santa Cruz Progressive Coalition treasurer Bill Malone summing up his goal for the special election in two words: "Stop Arnold!"

"If Schwarzenegger does well in this special election, he'll be in a good position for his 2006 re-election campaign," says Malone. "He's seeking to wrest control from the legislature with initiatives that sound grand, but don't really do much, in terms of addressing real problems," says Malone, who urges people to get out and vote "no," no matter how much they dislike Schwarzenegger and his special election.

"If people don't, because they're turned off and annoyed, then the Republicans win."

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From the October 19-26, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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