Gov. Schwarzenegger got pasted in the
chops about a month ago — only figuratively, as befits an action hero — but it
did cause him a little explosion of bad PR. He showed up for a photo-op with
some of the firefighters working the annual wildfire in Topanga Canyon, and they
later admitted it was only pressure from higher-ups that made them stop and
smile. They would never have volunteered to cheek-by-jowl it with
Schwarzenegger, they said, given what they see as his attacks on both their
integrity and their family survival benefits.

The bad press was the latest blowback
from the months-long campaign by Schwarzenegger and his handlers to position
public employees like firefighters and nurses as the No. 1 source of
California’s problems. The rank-and-file have in turn kicked the governor
vigorously in the shins, especially the nurses, who have dogged Schwarzenegger’s
appearances. Employee counter attacks have played well with the public and have
contributed to Schwarzenegger’s sinking standing in the polls.

All of the measures in the governor’s
slate were trailing in an Oct. 28 poll by the Public Policy Institute of
California, a nonpartisan research nonprofit — but the two most egregious to
unions, propositions 74 and 75, were receiving the most support from likely
voters. Among those likely to vote in the special election, 46 percent said they
supported Proposition 74 and 49 percent opposed it. Proposition 75 voters were
deadlocked at 47 percent.

If passed, Proposition 75, dubbed
“paycheck protection” by supporters, would force public sector unions to go
through an annual process to ask workers’ permission to use dues for most
political battles. That would force unions to spend millions on cumbersome
reporting systems and hamstring their efforts to respond quickly and efficiently
in political fights. Critics point out that corporations use shareholders’ funds
to take political positions without having to ask similar permission.

A legal battle launched recently by the
National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation suggests what is at stake for
anti-union groups. The foundation filed suit in September against the California
Teachers Association to block the union from using a $60 dues hike to fight
Schwarzenegger’s initiative slate. Earlier this month, a judge ruled against the
foundation efforts to get a temporary restraining order.

That foundation works hand-in-glove
with the National Right to Work Committee, founded in 1955 to thwart workplace
organizing. Other Washington-based conservatives have also indicated a keen
interest in the California battles. Kevin de Leon, a California Teachers
Association representative, reports that George Bush’s key adviser, Karl Rove,
has convened chats about advancing the notion of "paycheck protection" and is
keeping a close eye on California to see how it goes. "These guys are playing
three-dimensional chess," says de Leon.

Representatives of the libertarian Cato
Foundation testified on Capitol Hill in favor of an as-yet-unsuccessful bill
that would make the dues restrictions a matter of federal policy. There is a
similar initiative balloon set to launch in Oregon and "I imagine we’ll see an
infusion in the 2006 elections if they’re successful in California," says
Kristina Wilfore of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center in Washington, D.C.

Earlier polls also showed Proposition
75 with a slight edge among union members themselves. The national labor
federation, the AFL-CIO, might have ridden to the rescue in the past, but is
preoccupied with a historic rupture that took nearly half of its rank-and-file
members and a big chunk of its budget.

Another initiative Schwarzenegger
champions, Proposition 74, has thrown him directly against California’s
teachers, a foe as formidable and popular as the nurses and firefighters.

Proposition 74 is aimed at fixing what
supporters claim is the central flaw in California’s struggling public school
systems — a surfeit of bad teachers protected by rules that make it impossible
to fire them. The initiative would extend the probation period for new teachers
from its current two years to five, and allow dismissal after two consecutive
unsatisfactory evaluations. It would also eliminate the 90-day period now
permitted for teachers to improve their performance.

Proponents call it the "Putting Kids
First Act." Opponents have dubbed it the "Punish the New Teachers Act."

The California Teachers Association (CTA),
the state teachers union, is the key opponent of Proposition 74 and a leading
force in the labor coalition, the Alliance for a Better California. The CTA and
the alliance claim Proposition 74 would likely lower wage and work standards for
teachers overall, not just new ones. Longer probationary periods would make it
easier for districts to fire teachers while their salaries were still low.
Replacements would be more low-salaried probationers.

The ballot statement from the state of
California’s chief legislative analyst points out the pitfalls for teachers no
longer on probation. "Due to the proposition’s modifications to the dismissal
process, school districts might experience greater turnover among permanent
teachers," it says. That could save districts money in the short term. But the
analyst warns that job insecurity may mean that the districts have to offer more
money to attract teachers, raising costs.

Martin Ludlow, head of the County
Federation of Labor, shakes his head in amazement. "It’s like saying that the
reason a 1960 vehicle is not running at top performance is because the guy
driving it doesn’t know how to drive, " he says "That’s just outrageous. It’s
because you haven’t kept the vehicle up."

The California Republican Party, which
serves as the media face of Proposition 74, didn’t provide a spokesperson for an
interview. But the Web site joinarnold.com argues that unions "have created a
maze of complex rules and requirements designed to protect poor performing
teachers from dismissal. In fact, California is one of only 10 states in the
nation with such requirements."

Initiative supporters include
corporations and individuals hostile to the notion of a public sector itself.
The Proposition 74 campaign chair, Margaret Fortune, is a longtime champion of
school vouchers, which reroute public education money to subsidize
private-school tuition costs. As idealized by conservative legislative
think-tanks like the Heritage and Cato Foundations, vouchers would completely
defund the public school system and turn education into a Wild West of
free-market competition with little oversight. California voters rejected the
notion at the polls in 1993.

Donors to the Proposition 74 effort
include the Governor’s California Recovery Team, which poured over $1.2 million
into passing the measure. Wal-Mart stores weighed in with $100,000. Heir John
Walton is a long-time voucher supporter. Jerrold Perenchio, billionaire founder
of the Spanish-language TV network, Univision, has kicked in $1.5 million. His
donations to voucher efforts in the past have topped $1 million. Employees in
his Fresno newsroom went on a hunger strike in 2000 in an unsuccessful bid to
resolve a contract dispute.

The governor may have pulled himself
off the TV, but stay tuned for last-minute fireworks in the Governator-vs.-unions
smackdown.