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Unions spend millions in state campaigns

| Monday, Nov. 19, 2012, 6:30 p.m.

WASHINGTON — When Maggie Hassan won the New Hampshire governor's race, it wasn't just a victory for her fellow Democrats.

Unions spent millions backing Hassan with television ads and an extensive get-out-the-vote operation because she opposes a right-to-work bill to ban labor-management contracts that require affected workers to be union members or pay union fees.

From California to Maine, unions used their political muscle to help install Democratic governors, build labor-friendly majorities in state legislatures and defeat ballot initiatives against them.

In perhaps their most important victory, unions defeated a California ballot measure that would have prohibited them from collecting money for political purposes through payroll deductions.

“The unions must be fairly happy with themselves,” said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “These are positive signs, particularly saving their political life in California.”

While re-electing President Obama was labor's highest Election Day priority, unions invested major resources in state races where they have been fighting efforts by governors and state lawmakers to restrict bargaining rights or dilute union power.

The victories could mark a turnaround of sorts for unions nearly two years after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced plans to strip teachers, nurses and other public employees of most collective bargaining rights. Walker, a Republican, justified the move as necessary to trim the state's budget shortfall.

Since then, unions have been fighting dozens of measures around the country targeting labor rights. They failed earlier this year to recall Walker from office, but a judge has declared parts of the Wisconsin law unconstitutional.

Labor's victories happened at a steep cost, too. Unions and other Democratic interests poured at least $75 million in the effort to defeat California's Proposition 32.

Unions are not so much thriving as surviving.

“Thanks to union dues, it's a self-replenishing stream,” said Bill Whalen, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution. “They still have a sea of money to spend, and they prove quite adept at winning political arguments.”

Next to winning Obama's re-election, defeating Proposition 32 in California was labor's top goal. Prohibiting unions from collecting money for political activities through paycheck deductions would have deprived them of tens of millions of dollars for donations to candidates and financing campaigns.

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