Bold Bid to Shrink Union Muscle

California ballot initiative to curb union campaign spending is 'most important vote in American politics this year.'

Bill Russell is tired of watching his union dues go to political causes or candidates he disagrees with.

"Every time I turn around they [union leaders] are giving money to crackpots on the other side of some issue I care deeply about," says the Pac-Bell employee and eight-year member of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union. "I think that's wrong and I'm not going to take it anymore."

Mr. Russell backs a June 2 California citizens' initiative (Proposition 226) that would bar unions from from using members' dues for political ends without written permission.

By one estimate, 97 percent of California union political spending goes to the state's Democrats, despite the fact that 40 percent of union households vote Republican.

If passed, Prop. 226 would shrink union political muscle in the nation's most populous state and could fuel a brushfire of similar measures in other states. Vehemently opposed by union leaders, this brand of campaign-finance reform has overwhelming public support, according to national polls.

"The California vote is the most important vote in American politics this year," says Grover Norquist, director of the Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform.

Eleven states are working on similar measures, and as many as 40 may have formal proposals by the end of March. Among those already in the works: Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Utah.

"Right now, labor unions have political power independent of their membership.... If this passes, unions will have to reflect the desires of members," says Mr. Norquist.

Federal legislation that would enact similar restrictions is pending in both houses of Congress, but is unlikely to pass because of presidential veto threats. Michigan and Washington have passed like measures, in 1994 and 1992 respectively, but the size and clout of California will determine whether the idea will have legs, observers say.

"California is on the vanguard about the protection of employee freedom of choice," says Robert Hunter, director of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich. "It's a very big issue nationally because the lion's share of union political spending comes from employee dues."

The California measure was written in part by Frank Ury, an Orange County school board member who lost a school board election after the teachers union outspent him $70,000 to $3,000. Resenting the clout of teachers unions in several education issues over the years, including a $12.5 million campaign to defeat school vouchers, he and two others drafted Prop. 226.

"I also resented having to fund my own opposition against my will," says Mr. Ury.

Prop. 226's key provision stops unions and employers from taking money from members or employees for political purposes without prior, written permission, renewed annually. Under current law, a union member who does not want his dues used for political purposes must resign from the union. Trying to learn lessons from the 1992 Washington State initiative, which languishes in court over technicalities in designating what entity disperses wages - union or employer - Ury tried to give his measure more clarity and bite.

"We tried to tighten the language that has left loopholes for unions in Washington," says Ury. "They made a great first step; we are trying to run with it."

Unions have already been sobered by experiences in Washington and Michigan, two strong union states. Within a year of passage in Washington (by 72 percent of voters), the number of teachers union members contributing $1 a month to political funds dropped from 48,000 to 8,000. In Michigan, the top 10 labor political action committees have seen a drop-off in contributions of 97 percent from $4.3 million to $140,287 since 1994.

"Unions are understandably terrified," says Peggy Jackson, analyst with the Public Policy Institute based in Olympia, Washington. "That's why they are calling in the big guns and big money to defeat the California measure."

NATIONALLY, AFL-CIO director Steve Rosenthal has said labor will spend about $8 million in California to "launch the most massive grass-roots effort we've ever done in the state" to defeat Prop. 226. Other observers say the actual figure is 10 to 30 times that. Union attorney Larry Gold has called the measure "the most direct legal attack against labor ... that's ever happened."

According to William Gould, a Stanford University law professor and chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, Prop. 226 is not about fairness or free choice.

"This initiative is disruptive," he says. "Unions, on behalf of working families, are properly involved in the political process by contributing to certain candidates and causes.... If workers don't like the way union dues are being spent, they can vote for new union leaders."

Mr. Gould and other opponents claim that the California measure and its clones in other states are political "payback" for labor's expenditure of $120 million nationwide to defeat Republicans in the 1996 congressional elections. Within California, a similar argument is being made.

"We took back the state legislature for pro-worker candidates," says Judith Barish, spokeswoman for the California Labor Federation, which represents the state's 2,000 unions and 2 million union members. "Now, right-wing ideologues are engaged in a political vendetta to punish us for our effectiveness."

But for CWA member Bill Russell, the argument is simple. "If the union is supporting something I agree with, I would be happy to support it with money. But I don't want them giving money to something I abhor and then find out I have to quit the union to get my money back."

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