In 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger backed a series of ballot initiatives that put him at odds with teachers, firefighters and nurses. He emerged from that battle broken, bloodied and wholly defeated. We did not stand with him in that fight. Three years later, the governor finds himself up against state workers again, this time the prison guards, and we’re ready to charge into battle right by his side.

What a difference a union makes.

The prison guards’ union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), is the undisputed powerhouse of Sacramento politics. Its reign of terror began with the ascendance of Don Novey in the early 1980s. As president of the union, Novey turned the CCPOA into political machine that had the ability to make or break politicians. Not only did the union have the money to influence elections up and down the state, but it also had the smarts to align itself with crime victims’ groups amid an era when “soft on crime” amounted to a political epitaph.

By and large, lawmakers were terrified of the CCPOA. As a result, it got pretty much whatever it wanted. Former Gov. Gray Davis was a pawn on the prison guards, having accepted $3 million in CCPOA campaign contributions during his tenure. Lesser known were stories like that of Kings County District Attorney Greg Strickland, who in 1998 refused to back down from investigating allegations that guards brutally beat up 36 inmates at Corcoran State Prison. The CCPOA flooded the market with attack ads against Strickland and ended his career.

Before Davis was recalled, he gave state prison guards another big raise and unprecedented authority over certain aspects of prison management. Skip ahead six years, and the CCPOA has been operating under a state imposed contract since 2006. Schwarzenegger never needed the union’s money and so hasn’t bowed to its clout. Last week’s reelection of Mike Jimenez as union president — he took over for a retiring Novey in 2002 — amounted to a vote of confidence in

Jimenez’s leadership and a gust of wind in the sails of a possible effort to recall the governor. Recall backers hope to capitalize on the public’s irritation at Schwarzenegger’s perceived inability to pass a state budget.

In 2005, we found Schwarzenegger’s attempts to demonize state workers distasteful, and we didn’t much appreciate his recent stab at cutting many employees down to minimum wage (several workers at the Hillcrest branch of the

Department of Motor Vehicles last week were wearing union T-shirts and grumbling openly and defiantly about the governor). But the CCPOA is something altogether different.

We don’t begrudge the prison guards’ efforts to fight for decent pay, benefits and working conditions. We know their jobs are difficult; we certainly wouldn’t want them. But the CCPOA’s wanton abuse the campaign-finance system is second to none. Through its ability to manipulate the system and fill lawmakers’ hearts with terror, the union has gone beyond fighting for its members: It has adversely impacted far-reaching public policy. By stoking an irrational fear of crime among the electorate, it has contributed to a head-spinning expansion of the prison-industrial complex in California.

More draconian sentencing laws lead to prisons bursting at the seams, and the need for more prison construction. Meanwhile, thanks to the dysfunctional manner in which state prisons are run, more and more people who might otherwise be rehabilitated through a smarter correctional system are turned in hardened criminals who can’t escape the revolving door. We were sold the “three strikes” law in 1994 as a way of keeping habitually violent criminals behind bars and away from us and our children, but a 2005 study by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office showed that more than half of people incarcerated under the law were nonviolent felons. That has contributed to a bloated system in which prisons are at more than double their capacity, which exacerbates the dysfunction, results in substandard healthcare and makes rehabilitation damn near impossible, leaving taxpayers holding a rather expensive bag.

Recall is an important tool, necessary in cases of corrupt or grossly incompetent public service. Schwarzenegger is a lot of things, but he’s far from being a candidate for recall. We hope the CCPOA wastes millions on a recall effort and draws attention to its behavior. Maybe then the rank and file will oust its leadership in favor of people who are satisfied to stick with such bread-and-butter issues as benefits and working conditions.