March 27, 1998
Conservatives Pushing Ballot Initiatives to Rein In Labor's Political Clout
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Join a Discussion on Unions and the Labor Movement
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
OS ANGELES, March 20 -- Upset by organized labor's growing political clout, conservatives in California and 20 other states are pushing ballot initiatives or state legislation that could greatly reduce labor's political war chest.
In California, conservatives are campaigning for a measure on the June 2 ballot that could, by supporters' estimates, cut labor's campaign spending by 80 percent in that state. It would require unions to obtain a member's approval each year before spending that member's dues on political activities.
Labor leaders call the referendum a crude weapon designed to cripple labor politically and to punish unions for campaigning so hard against Republicans in the 1996 Congressional elections.
In what is expected to be one of the biggest political battles of 1998, labor unions say they plan to spend at least $10 million to defeat the California referendum, and its supporters plan to spend almost as much.
Polls show that Californians support the referendum by more than 2 to 1.
Union officials say they fear that if the referendum is passed, it will pave the way for similar victories in other states, hobbling labor's political muscle nationwide.
In Colorado, Oregon and Nevada, conservatives are collecting signatures to put what they call "paycheck protection" initiatives on the ballot. In Alaska, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and a dozen other states, bills have been introduced in state legislatures to place similar restrictions on unions.
"We're trying to get it moving in 50 states at once," said Grover Norquist, director of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group based in Washington, which is urging lawmakers to introduce such legislation in every state. "If it wins in California, it will win everywhere else."
Mr. Norquist said he was promoting these initiatives because similar Republican-backed legislation in Congress appeared doomed; Senate Democrats have filibustered it and President Clinton has promised a veto.
The nationwide push to restrict labor's political spending comes at a time of growing Republican anger at
unions for their aggressive Congressional agenda: pushing through a minimum-wage increase in 1996, blocking trade legislation last year and opposing school vouchers, broad tax cuts and the privatization of Social Security. The conservative campaign in the states throws unions on the defensive and forces them to fight these initiatives with money and manpower that would otherwise go to political battles of their choosing.
Although the polls in California are running strongly against them, even among union members, labor leaders voice confidence that they can pull out a victory. They say that with a little campaigning they can persuade the state's two million union members and voters in general that the referendum will improperly advance the interests of big business at the expense of average Californians.
"It deserves to be defeated because it's unfair," said Art Pulaski, executive director of the California A.F.L.-C.I.O. "It tips the balance of influencing elections even more. Business outspends unions 11 to 1 on politics, and the proponents want to make the ratio 11 to 0."
While labor leaders say the referendum seeks to cut them off at the knees, its sponsors, including Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, insist that the initiative is pro-worker and is designed to protect union members against having their compulsory dues money spent on political causes they oppose.
Mark Bucher, a 38-year-old business executive from Tustin, a Los Angeles suburb, wrote the California initiative with two friends after a teacher he knew complained that her union was supporting school board candidates she opposed.
"To the extent that unions or anyone else are pushing a political agenda by using money that's not given to them freely, that should be stopped," said Mr. Bucher, who led the effort to collect 750,000 signatures to get the referendum on the ballot.
While Mr. Bucher makes clear that the California effort is homegrown, labor leaders assert that the referendum, known as Proposition 226, has been taken over by out-of-state conservatives eager to weaken labor. Those backers include Speaker Newt Gingrich; Mr.
Norquist, a Gingrich ally, and J. Patrick Rooney, an Indianapolis insurance magnate who has donated $49,000 to support the referendum.
Steven Rosenthal, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s political director, said, "There's no question this is about Newt Gingrich's kitchen cabinet set loose to take working families out of the political game as a result of our opposing the Republican agenda."
Labor leaders scoff at some of the referendum's backers for calling themselves friends of workers noting that many backers have opposed a higher minimum wage and have supported weakening workplace safety regulations and overtime laws.
Mr. Rooney, chairman emeritus of the Golden Rule Insurance Company, insisted that he was not on an anti-union crusade, but was instead seeking to safeguard workers' rights. He said he had urged legislators in 12 states to take up legislation what would limit political spending by labor.
"I see this Proposition 226 as simply a workers' rights issue," Mr. Rooney said. "For you or me or everybody else, do we want our money taken for political purposes by any employer or any union without our consent?"
Deena Ippolito, a union member and sales clerk at Disneyland who is campaigning for Proposition 226, insisted that the referendum was not about politics, but about personal conscience. She said it was wrong for her union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, to spend her dues on causes or candidates she did not believe in.
Ms. Ippolito, who backed Representative Robert K. Dornan, an ultra-conservative Republican, in his losing re-election bid in 1996 against Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat, said: "When I learned my union local donated $10,000 to Sanchez's campaign. I said, 'Excuse me. You did what?' I supported Bob Dornan. The union said, 'We support your interests. We do what's best for you.' They treat us like children. If I wanted to give to Loretta Sanchez, I could have done it on my own. I think individual union members, not the union, should decide how to spend their money on politics."
Debra Hurd, a clerk at a Von's Supermarket in Los Angeles who is also a member of the food workers' union, viewed the referendum differently. "It will weaken union members," Ms. Hurd said. "It gives big business the freedom to spend money, however they want, without having anyone to check them. It puts business in the driver's seat.'
One factor behind the push for Proposition 226 was conservatives' anger that the California Teachers Association spent $9 million in 1993 helping defeat a referendum that would have permitted parents to use vouchers to send their children to a public or private school of their choice.
Nadine Larsh, a 35-year-old teacher in Santa Ana who backed that referendum, said, "I don't think unions are bad. They do good things. They fight for you sometimes. But when I disagree with them on political issues, I'd like to have the option of pulling out my funds."
Union officials argue that Proposition 226 is unnecessary because under a 1988 Supreme Court decision, workers have the right to withhold the part of their dues money that unions use for political activities. Union members must continue paying dues to finance union activities related to collective bargaining.
But the referendum's supporters say it is unfair that unions generally require members who want to withhold the political portion of their dues to quit the union. The union continues to represent them in collective bargaining, but these former members lose their say in electing union leaders and setting union policies. Supporters also argue that unions have done little to notify workers of their right to withhold the portion of their dues going to politics ranging from $10 to $200 a year, depending on the union.
Labor leaders say that if Proposition 226 passes, Federal courts may overturn it on the ground that Congress has historically regulated labor unions and states thus have no power to do so. The authors of Proposition 226 say it applies only to money used in state campaigns, but opponents fear the broad language might be applied to money used in Federal campaigns as well.
In heated combat in recent weeks, union officials have persuaded legislators in Maryland, Missouri, New Mexico and South Dakota to kill so-called paycheck protection bills. But in Wyoming lawmakers defied labor's pleas and enacted such a bill on March 12.
Other states that have enacted such bills are Idaho, Michigan and Washington.
In California, Mr. Bucher asserts it is wrong for unions to spend millions of dollars fighting Proposition 226 when polls show union members are against it by at least 2 to 1.
"It's fascinating how much money they're spending when their members don't want it spent," Mr. Bucher said. "This shows labor leaders are out of touch."
But several labor leaders said that at every union meeting they attended, members overwhelmingly opposed Proposition 226. Gale Kaufman, a consultant hired by the unions to fight the referendum, said, "The last time I checked, unions were run democratically, and nobody's money gets spent on anything without a vote by union members who have participated."
The Americans for Tax Reform and the A.F.L.-C.I.O. say that bills to restrict labor's political spending are also being considered in the legislatures of Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia.