LOS ANGELES — After scalding defeats this year from Wisconsin to Indiana, organized labor held its ground in California and beat back the latest attempt to dilute union political clout.
In a sign of the stakes, labor groups and other Democratic interests funneled at least $75 million into their drive to defeat Proposition 32 on Tuesday’s ballot, which would have starved unions of the tens of millions of dollars they use to finance campaigns and political organizing.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka had declared California a firewall, after Indiana became the 23rd state to pass a law that limits unions’ ability to collect fees from nonunion workers and labor failed to recall Wisconsin’s governor, Republican Scott Walker, after he signed a law limiting collective bargaining rights for most public workers.
"At the end of the day, this election was about a choice between two very different visions for our nation,” Trumka said in a statement Wednesday, after the proposition’s defeat. "One vision rewards hard work and the people who do it, while the other benefits only those at the top — and voters got it.”
The proposition was defeated by 12 percentage points, according to preliminary returns, a commanding victory that reinforced California’s pronounced Democratic tilt. The party also secured a two-thirds majority in the state Senate and President Barack Obama ran up a nearly 21-point margin over Mitt Romney.
Democrats already hold every statewide office in California, and Republican voter registration has dropped below 30 percent of the electorate.
The defeat of the proposition was part of a sobering night for the GOP. Corporate interests and wealthy Republicans that supported Proposition 32, including an Iowa fund with ties to billionaires Charles and David Koch, invested some $60 million in the campaign and a related drive to block Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax increase.
Demographic shifts that were key factors in Obama’s win have long been on display in California and were critical in the outcome across the state ballot Tuesday, said Jim Brulte, a former Republican leader in the state Senate.
"We’ve become experts at getting 10 percent of the African-American vote and 25 percent of the Latino vote, and that’s not enough to win presidential elections,” Brulte said. "It’s made California, for all intents and purposes, a one-party state.”
Even at a time when polls show voters are deeply unhappy with Sacramento and government workers face political pressure to roll back retirement benefits that are straining state budgets, "there appears to be a Democratic jet stream in California,” said Bill Whalen, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution.
"When threatened, unions respond. They play for blood,” Whalen added.
Republicans and other supporters "were outspent, outmaneuvered and outnumbered.”
Proposition 32 would have prohibited corporations and unions from collecting money for state political activities from employees or members through paycheck deductions. It also would have prohibited unions and corporations from making donations to state candidates.
But it would have hit unions hardest: Corporations do not typically deduct money from employee pay for state political activities, but unions use the practice to fill most of their political treasuries.
Overall, there are about 2.4 million union members in California, and that money has helped make teachers, prison guards and other public workers some of the most feared institutions in Sacramento, where labor has longstanding ties with Democrats, who now control both chambers of the Legislature and every statewide office.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat and former union organizer, dismissed the proposition as a thinly veiled attempt to gut labor strength.
"In California, residents aren’t interested in one-sided efforts at reform,” he told reporters Wednesday at City Hall.
Despite the defeat of Proposition 32, the committee that supported it issued a statement saying "it doesn’t end here,” signaling the possibility of another ballot fight in the future.
The mayor noted that California voters rejected similar ballot questions in 2005 and 1998 and added, "By now the message should be clear: Don’t try to muscle hard-working Californians.”