California prepares for ‘paycheck protection’ vote next week

Friday, May 29, 1998

A Republican drive in California to force unions to ask their members' permission to spend dues on political campaigns seems to be weakening in the face of strong labor opposition.

Over the past two months, supporters of Proposition 226, which requires the annual written authorization of union members to have their dues spent on political causes, have seen support dwindle from 3 to 1 to barely a majority.

California voters will decide June 2 on the proposition, which supporters have deemed “paycheck protection.”

Although paycheck protection measures are supported by Republicans as a way of cutting a traditional source of Democratic funding, they are also being used as a political weapon. Republican leaders in Congress have used similar paycheck protection measures recently to kill campaign finance reform efforts as mostly pro-labor Democrats refuse to sign onto anti-union legislation.

Threats from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to paste such a proposal into a bipartisan campaign reform bill earlier this year sank the measure. GOP leaders in the House promise to tag on similar amendments to reform bills there.

Offered as a separate bill in the House last March, paycheck protection failed 246-166.

Republicans have had much more success at the state level. Four states—Idaho, Wyoming, Michigan and Washington—have adopted some form of paycheck protection. But Republican leaders say they hope success with the California referendum will spark similar changes nationwide.

Conservatives say such protection is needed since Federal Election Commission figures show union spending habits to be vastly disproportionate to union members' political preferences. According to the FEC, about 40 percent of union members say they voted Republican in the 1994 and 1996 elections.

Meanwhile, more than 90 percent of union election contributions went to non-Republican entities or causes, figures show. Labor unions were the largest contributor to Democratic campaigns, donating about $119 million in the 1996 election.

While Republicans used First Amendment arguments in campaign reform debates—restricting money, restricts speech, they say—such arguments now come from union leaders and Democrats who defend the political use of dues as an exercise of free-assembly rights.

Union leaders say federal law already forbids blanket donations of union dues to political campaigns. They cite the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the 1988 case Communications Workers of America v. Beck, which said that union workers may claim partial refunds of dues not spent on collective bargaining.

The League of Women Voters said it opposes Proposition 226 because it unfairly targets unions and does nothing to restrict large business groups and industry. The group also said the measure will cost the state up to $2 million annually just to monitor its employee payroll deductions.

“Everybody should play by the same rules, especially when it comes to elections that determine the future direction of our state and nation,” the league wrote.

Over the past several months, national labor officials have dumped nearly $20 million in mailings and an extensive ad campaign to discourage voters from supporting Proposition 226.

The effort seems to be paying off.

Barely two months ago, Proposition 226 enjoyed widespread support as some polls showed approval to be in the high 70s. But as the vote draws near, the numbers have slid gradually. A Los Angeles Times poll last week showed only 51 percent of likely voters support the initiative while 37 percent said they oppose it.

“I think the unions' strenuous opposition show how afraid they are to let their members be heard on these issues,” said Tim Fitzpatrick, spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

Fitzpatrick said that his latest numbers show support rebounding up to nearly 60 percent support.

“We're looking forward to a strong passage,” he said. “The decline in poll numbers may have sent a wake-up call to folks on our side to get energized to assure passage.”