A major factor in California’s startling evolution from a state with two evenly matched political parties to one utterly dominated by Democrats has been their back-scratching partnership with labor unions.
Democratic politicians have delivered on the unions’ bread-and-butter priorities, from pension benefits to legislation making it easier to make public and private employees union members.
In return, unions have become the largest source of campaign funds and other resources that help California Democrats win offices from the governorship to local city council members.
There are other factors in the state’s political transition over the last quarter-century, including demographic trends and self-destructive moves by Republicans, but the Democrats’ partnership with unions looms large.
That said, when any political party becomes dominant in a city, a county or a state, it also tends to fragment into factions defined by ideology, ethnicity, personality or even geography. In the absence of two-party competition, these intra-party factions vie with one another for internal influence.
The Democrats’ internal conflicts were on display during the recent state party convention, most obviously the unhappiness among left-wing activists with their inability to win support for their highest priorities, such as single-payer health care and a shutdown of the state’s petroleum industry.
“The party uses every advantage it has under the bylaws to ensure there is no democracy in the Democratic Party,” Amar Shergill, the progressive caucus chairperson, told CalMatters’ Alexei Koseff.
Friction Between Leaders and Labor Unions
The convention also revealed some friction between party leaders and the labor unions that have for so long been central to the party’s political success.
Andrew Meredith, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council, accused the party of forgetting its “blue-collar roots” by embracing environmental and regulatory policies that could adversely affect employment.
“We must refrain from being the mouthpiece for unrealistic policy goals that hurt the working class or hurt the working poor,” Meredith said. Calls from progressives for an oil industry shutdown, which could erase thousands of unionized jobs, have been particularly galling to Meredith and other blue-collar union leaders.
It’s not a new conflict. Forty-five years ago, during the early years of Jerry Brown’s first governorship, the late Jack Henning, then head of the California Labor Federation, publicly castigated Brown’s left-of-center appointees after Dow Chemical abandoned plans for a $500 million petrochemical plant.
“He (Brown) did not pull the trigger,” Henning thundered, “but he bought the pistol and bullets. There are certain mad hatters in the Brown administration who will, if they have their own way, drive all significant industry out of California.”
Law Enforcement Backs Attorney General Challenger
Meanwhile, two of the state’s major law enforcement union organizations, the Peace Officers Research Association of California and the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, have jumped ship on Rob Bonta, who is seeking a full term as attorney general after being appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The two groups endorsed one of Bonta’s challengers, former Republican Anne Marie Schubert, the Sacramento County district attorney. Schubert accuses Bonta of going too far in supporting reductions in criminal penalties and the endorsements from PORAC and CAHP took a similar line.
With polls saying that California voters are increasingly concerned about increases in crime, Bonta can no longer assume that being a Democratic officeholder in a deep blue state means an automatic election win.
While progressives chafe at their inability to move priority issues despite overwhelming Democratic majorities in the Legislature, the criticism from Meredith and the police unions’ rejection of Bonta are telling party leaders that moving too far to the left also risks alienating a powerful constituency.
About the Author
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.