Should union dues back political causes?

California vote may affect other states' efforts to prevent unions' use of funds for liberal political ends.

Fred Glass is worried that if a November ballot initiative passes here, teachers, firefighters, police, nurses, and other public employees will lose their collective political clout.

"If we can't bundle our money together, we cannot mount credible challenges to candidates and causes backed by wealthier donors," says the instructor at San Francisco City College, a member of the California Federation of Teachers.

Mr. Glass is fighting Proposition 75, an initiative that goes before California voters on Nov. 8. It would bar public employee unions from making financial contributions to political candidates or causes without its members' annual consent to do so.

The measure, backed by a coalition of business groups and antitax advocates aligned with conservatives, seeks to redress what supporters say is a key imbalance: More than 90 percent of union spending in the state has gone to Democratic candidates despite the fact that 40 percent of union households vote Republican.

Political experts see a higher-stakes repeat of 1998, when the state became a national battleground for a similar initiative - only narrowly defeated.

"Proposition 75 in California is part of a national strategy by Republicans to weaken labor unions and go after one of the biggest sources of income for Democrats and Democratic causes," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

Should California's Proposition 75 fail to pass, Mr. Schier adds, it could halt the progress of similar measures under consideration in several states - from Ohio, Michigan, and Nevada, to Florida, South Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Arizona.

Because the stakes are so high, out-of-state Republican and Democratic organizations, as well as national unions, are pumping millions of dollars into California coffers to either knock down or promote the initiative.

Almost $40 million will be spent by those opposed to the measure, compared with $10 million for those in favor, experts predict.

"Unions all over the country have an investment in this fight because they know that if they can no longer raise money for Democratic candidates and causes, there is no other group on the left that can amass the kind of political war chests that Republicans raise," says Elizabeth Garrett, a law professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, who tracks state initiatives.

Such has been the case in the state of Washington, where passage of a similar law in 1992 - by 72 percent of voters - led to a precipitous drop in political contributions from teacher union members in the first year: from 48,000 contributors to 8,000. When Utah passed a similar law in 2001, only 6.8 percent of teacher union members allowed their dues to be spent on politics.

According to Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida who has written two books on direct democracy, the national Republican Party supports measures like Proposition 75, and those passed in Washington and Utah, as part of a national strategy.

"The Republican National Committee has pumped millions into groups like Americans for Tax Reform with the intention of putting up conservative ballot measures that will help drive turnout for GOP candidates," he says. "But [it is] also to basically drain the coffers of Democratic allies, most notably organized labor," says Smith.

The initiative process is an effective, relatively low-cost strategy, Smith adds, because measures can be qualified for about $1 million but require millions to defeat.

In California, those millions are being spent. The No-on-75 campaign has waged a heavy barrage of television ads claiming that the proposition will take away the voices of nurses, educators, police, and firefighters.

Still, according to a recent California Field Poll, 55 percent of likely voters favor the measure, while 32 percent do not.

Moreover, the governor now is throwing his weight behind the passage of Proposition 75.

"The big government union bosses have focused their millions of dollars tearing me down because they know they cannot defeat my ideas," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) recently told state GOP conventioneers. "We have the opportunity to put our reform agenda in front of the people so they can vote for change and against the status quo that has paralyzed and broken Sacramento."

Governor Schwarzenegger and proponents call Proposition 75 a "worker protection" measure. Opponents counter that it is "worker deception," because public employees can't be forced to join unions, and they also vote for their leaders - who then decide what causes or candidates to promote.

At one level then, the fight is over who bears the burden of notifying union leaders of how union dues should be spent.

"Union members already have a constitutional right to opt out of having their dues spent for political purposes and can get that enforced under union rules," says William Gould, a Stanford law professor and former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board. "But Republican politicians don't think the burden should be on [those dissenters] to do so, but rather on those who think the money should be spent on whichever causes and candidates."

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