When you start talking about the power of public employee unions in 21st century California, it’s not long before you hear the analogy to the power of the railroads in the state back in the late 19th century and the early 20th century.

Inevitably, the story will be told that Hiram Johnson used the ballot initiative to beat back the railroad power. And that’s sort of true. Johnson did win elections, twice, and he gave the railroad interests a hard time, as did the Progressives.

But that’s the not the real story. The setback for railroad power was temporary. Johnson had lost power as governor by 1916, and departed halfway through his second term for the U.S. Senate. The railroad and other interests against which Johnson had battled retained their power. In the 1930s, one speaker was a railroad lobbyist.

Past is prologue. Prop 32 seems likely to lose, just as previous efforts have. But even if it were to win, public employee unions will retain much of their power. That’s been the case in other states that have passed similar restrictions on union political spending. The unions have the courts, regulations, collective bargaining and future ballot initiatives to win back any defeat at the polls, as John Hrabe points out in some detail in a Calwatchdog post on Prop 32.

So what’s the point of Prop 32? Californian reformers have been at war with powerful interests for more than 100 years. There have been myriad attempts to put limits on their power. The war is never won. The interests are as wealthy and powerful as they ever were. Perhaps it’s time to try a different strategy.

What strategy? I don’t know, but I suggest that would-be reformers try to connect with each other. I know just the time and place: Old Sacramento the weekend of Sept 29 and 30. There will be free train excursions and admissions to the railroad museum. Good times. The weekend’s sponsor? Union Pacific, which is putting on the event to celebrate its 150th birthday.