Thursday, February 26, 1998
"Plain wrong and un-American" is how the governor''s office describes political fundraising by state labor unions.
That is why Gov. Pete Wilson has signed on as honorary campaign chairman for a ballot initiative that would severely restrict the ability of state labor unions to spend money on political campaigns.
The so-called campaign reform initiative, which has well over the 430,000 signatures needed to qualify for the June 1998 ballot, would require all labor unions to obtain annual written permission from union members before allocating any dues for political action or political education efforts. The measure would also ban all contributions from foreign nationals, although such contributions are already prohibited by federal law.
Proponents of the initiative argue that unions regularly spend dues money on candidates and causes that members themselves do not support. "Union bosses should not be spending their members hard earned dollars without [members] knowledge of where it is being spent," says Wilson spokesperson Ron Lowe.
The authors of the initiative, James Righeimer, Frank Ury and Mark Bucher are all Orange County Republicans associated with the failed school voucher initiative of 1993. After the school voucher effort, the three formed the Education Alliance whose purpose is to place conservatives, particularly Christian conservatives, on local school boards.
Ury himself is a former Saddleback Valley Unified school board member and a vocal opponent of labor unions who lost his seat due to strong opposition by the California Teachers'' Association, one of the state''s largest and most powerful labor unions.
Initiative proponent Mark Bucher says that during the voucher campaign he was approached by teachers who supported school vouchers while the teacher''s union was spending dues money to defeat the initiative.
According to Bucher, many rank and file members are under tremendous pressure to contribute to their union PACs. "One teacher came up to me and said that it took over a year to get them to stop taking those dues out." Eventually, says Bucher, the teacher left the union. "When I saw what people had to go through it made me realize that something was very wrong with the system," says Bucher.
While at least one fundraising letter for the measure promises to "change California politics significantly--including the upcoming gubernatorial race," Lowe insists that the measure is not about partisan politics. "This is an issue of fundamental fairness," says Lowe.
According the Lowe, Wilson has also been actively promoting the measure to Republican governors and legislators in other states.
"This is an issue that is gaining popularity all over the country. It is hard to predict where it is going to spread next," says Lowe.
It is no secret that many Republicans are furious about the role labor played in re-electing Bill Clinton in 1996, raising some $35 million for the president''s campaign.
In some ways, the widespread support of conservatives in other states for this measure may be a tribute to what many say is a resurgence of the American labor movement. A strict limit on union spending may be just the right tool to put labor back in the box before things get too out of hand.
"This a full-scale vendetta against labor unions for being politically effective," says Judith Barish with the California Labor Federation, who explains that the measure has less to do with protecting the rank and file than it does with political payback.
According to Barish, nationwide corporate campaign contributions outnumber union spending by 17 to 1. "If this measure is passed in California that number will become 17 to 0."
"Big labor" is often accused of wielding undue influence through its numerous political action committees. Recently, that criticism has grown louder with every major labor victory of the past year--from the 1996 elections to the recent defeat of presidential fast track authority.
Some Republicans, like Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, have gone so far as to cast the AFL-CIO as the single most corrupting influence on American electoral politics. In September, Lott attempted to inject provisions similar to the California measure into the McCain-Feingold bill, which would have banned soft-money contributions to political campaigns. The amendment was so contentious that the entire bill had to be withdrawn before going to a vote by the full senate, effectively killing reform legislation for the foreseeable future.
But Barish says the real assault on union campaign financing is just beginning. "This is part of a national campaign that masquerades as campaign finance reform but is really a politically motivated and mean-spirited attempt to silence workers."
Meanwhile, accusations of campaign finance abuse against Teamsters president Ron Carey will likely add more momentum to the movement to curb labor''s political activity.
The California measure is modeled on an initiative passed by Washington state voters in 1992. According to Trevor Nielson with the Washington Education Association, the number of members who contribute to that union''s political action committee are down from 40,000 to 11,000 since the law went into effect.
"It''s had a huge impact. It''s definitely made it a lot harder for us to raise money," says Nielson. Nielson however believes the drop in PAC (Political Action Committee) numbers has less to do with lack of support for the union''s political efforts and more to do with the nightmare of red tape involved in obtaining annual written permission from every member. "It is very difficult to get everybody to do the same thing over and over again."
So far, the overall impact of the new law on Washington''s political landscape is unclear but Nielson predicts that the effects will eventually become obvious. "It is going to hurt labor in the long run because corporations are not subject to the same restrictions," says Nielson.
Both sides of the measure have wildly different stories about what federal law allows with regard to using union dues for political purposes.
Bucher insists that members have absolutely no ability to withhold their dues a union''s PAC.
But according to Drew Mendelson, spokesperson for the California State Employees Association (CSEA), all labor unions are required to regularly notify members that they may at any time request that none of their dues go towards a candidate or other political. Mendelson adds that the CSEA publishes such a notice every month in its magazine California Pride.
Currently however unions are only required to ask permission once, at the time an individual becomes a member she may decide to check a box indicating a desire to contribute to the PAC. A law requiring that written consent be given annually, says Mendelson, would divert a large pool of resources that could otherwise be spent on political education campaigns, organizing or collective bargaining.
"Basically it will create so much red tape that it will be impossible for people to participate in the political process," says Mendelson, who adds that the initiative''s proponents are misleading voters by suggesting that the law will reduce dues for workers who choose not to contribute to a union PAC. Mendelson says it will not, those dues will simply be put towards a different purpose.
"There is really nothing in this measure that will improve the conditions of working people. It is simply an attempt to deny workers a voice," says Mendelson.
In the California crusade to restrict union contributions, Bucher and company are relying primarily on out-of-state donations from conservative heavy hitters who want to see the law go into effect nationwide. In many cases the same corporations and individuals who have given millions to Newt Gingrich''s legally troubled GOPAC and other conservative causes nationwide.
While some California business interests are doing their part to fund the campaign--Gap CEO Donald Fisher and San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos have each weighed in with $5,000--business so far has been reluctant to get into to the fray, perhaps feeling that the measure goes to far and will provoke measures restricting corporate campaign money.
The real momentum appears to have come from contributors like Indiana insurance baron J. Patrick Rooney, a major GOPAC funder who is personally responsible for funneling more than $1 million into republican campaigns during the 1994 election year. Rooney is chairman the nation''s largest health insurer, Golden Rule Insurance.
As one Gingrich''s closest advisors, Rooney has led the effort to dismantle MediCare in favor a medical savings account system. Golden Rule also happens to be the nation''s largest supplier of medical savings accounts. So far Rooney has pumped at least $46,000 into the campaign reform initiative, though it is rumored that figure may actually be approaching $200,000.
Another member of Gingrich''s inner circle, right-wing activist Grover Norquist, appears to be the linchpin of the campaign, garnering endorsements and financial support from republicans all over the country. A regular columnist for the American Spectator magazine and head of the national Americans for Tax Reform organization, Norquist''s pet projects include privatizing social security and preaching the gospel of the flat tax.
In November, Americans for Tax Reform paid for an official-looking mail-in petition that uses the governor''s name and seal to convince voters to sign in support of the proposition. While the California Labor Federation and Common Cause have blasted the letter as being a misleading and inappropriate use of the governor''s office, it is believed that the mailing brought in at least 100,000 more signatures needed to qualify the initiative.
Mendelson suggests that one need only review the list of arch-conservative supporters backing the initiative to see that it may be the start of something big. "These people are all devoutly anti-worker," he says.
Meanwhile, although Bucher acknowledges that there is a great deal of interest in the initiative nationally, "I really bristle at the suggestion that this is some conspiracy being masterminded by Pat Rooney. I''m the guy who wrote this thing. Where were they when I wrote it?"
The California Labor Federation is backing initiatives for the November ballot that would limit corporate contributions to political campaigns and require voter approval of corporate tax breaks.
While restricting corporate influence in politics has long been a Holy Grail of many activists, the timing of the proposed measures may lead some to fear that they are designed solely to sap the strength of the anti-union measure or perhaps scare business off.
Mendelson acknowledges that these were prompted by the Bucher measure but insists that they are more than cynical countermoves.
"We have long thought that these would be worthwhile things to fight for, although we might have chosen another time to do it. The issue here is making sure we have a strong defense," says Mendelson, adding "We have to put out the message now that they [the corporate sector] are equally vulnerable."
Cosmo Garvin is a Sacramento-based freelance writer.