The battle rages on in California: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wealthy corporate and business friends vs. teachers, nurses, firefighters and other public employees and their unions. The outcome is sure to have a major national impact — especially on those who are struggling to revitalize the slumping labor movement.
Come Nov. 8, it will be over. That’s when Californians go to the polls in a special election the Republican governor called in an open attempt to severely weaken the public employee unions that are key backers, financially and otherwise, of his Democratic opponents.
The most important of the propositions put on the ballot by Schwarzenegger’s allies is an outrageously labeled “Paycheck Protection Initiative” — Prop. 75. It would ensnare the unions in red tape that would make it very difficult for them to contribute significantly to the campaigns of labor-friendly office seekers and to finance the other political activities that have been crucial in their attempts to better the conditions of members and of working people generally.
Under Prop. 75, public employee unions would be forced to get written permission from individual members yearly to spend any part of their dues on politics. Members would have to specify the precise amount they want allocated to political contributions and political expenditures generally and how much to spend on contributions to political committees supporting particular candidates and issues.
Issuing, collecting, recording, and storing the required authorization forms would be costly and time-consuming, particularly for the many unions with members at widely-scattered worksites. No exceptions would be allowed, not even for members who might want to spare their unions from the state-mandated chores by waiving their right to file the annual forms.
Prop. 75 is obviously unnecessary except as a weapon to batter the political enemies of the proposition’s sponsors. Under current law, union members who don’t want their dues money spent on politics have the right to resign from the union, but have it continue to represent them in exchange for fees covering the cost of collective bargaining and other non-political functions. They cannot be forced to contribute to union political activities. Unions, furthermore, must account for all political expenditures.
There are other safeguards. The most important is that the union representatives who engage in political activities are just that representatives. They are answerable to the union members who elect them and who decide by majority vote which political candidates and positions they want them to support and how much to spend doing it, or in some cases leave those decisions to the elected representatives.
That’s democracy decisions made by majority rule, practiced by unions but not, of course, by Schwarzenegger’s political allies. That labor’s political and economic adversaries would not be required to adhere to the same rules that would apply to unions is the main and glaring flaw in Prop. 75.
Just as now, corporations would not have to get permission — written or otherwise — from stockholders before spending their money to finance contributions to campaigns, candidates and other political activities. Nor would there be any new restrictions on spending by labor’s other political foes right-wing zealots, religious extremists and others who spend enormously on politics. A recent study by the Federal Election Commission shows that they and other Republican Party allies already are outspending labor politically by a margin of 24 to 1.
As Sen. John Kerry noted, Prop. 75 “is not reform… If you want real reform, then give the same rules to everybody in the political system… This is slanting the system against these [government] workers, and that’s just plain not fair.”
Prop. 75 is the third attempt to curtail California labor’s political spending. The others, which would have applied to unions in the private as well public sector, were soundly defeated Prop. 226 on the 1998 ballot and Prop. 25 in 2000. Similar measures have been proposed in some three dozen other states. Only one has been approved in Utah, where it has caused union political spending to be cut by nearly two-thirds.
But make no mistake: If Arnold Schwarzenegger and his allies prevail in California, other well-financed anti-union forces in states all across the country will eagerly swing into action in hopes that they, too, could deliver a crippling blow to organized labor.
Copyright © 2005 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based columnist who has covered labor and political issues for more than four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.