Niello’s isn’t the only initiative of concern for unions, Democrats

Many Democrats and union supporters breathed a sigh of relief when former Assemblyman Roger Niello announced late Tuesday that he wouldn’t follow through with a signature campaign for his initiative to restrict public employee pensions. That effort would have banned public employee unions from collective bargaining on pensions — a key dispute in Wisconsin’s labor battles, and a tactic many say is designed to destroy these unions.

But there remain several initiatives filed with the Secretary of State’s office that could keep these same people up at night. These include measures that would severely limit union elections, ban unions from making political donations, restrict state spending to near current levels, and make it harder for the Legislature to pass bills.  

Some of these are still in the title and summary phase at the attorney general’s office, meaning they don’t have approved language or clearance to start signature gathering — a barrier that many proposed initiatives never cross. There is also the issue of whether they could get financial backing.

One of the most significant may appear at first glance to be fairly innocuous. The “Save Our Secret Ballot in California Act” has the kind of language that many voters may find appealing, stating mainly, “All voting shall be secret.”

Some voters might wonder why this is needed, since political elections already have secret ballots. A likely answer comes just below when it states that the types of elections that would be under the law include “Any designation or authorization of employee representation.” In other words, union elections.

This is essentially the opposite of “card check” or “employee free choice” legislation, which would require a union be certified when a majority of employees publicly connect their names to a union effort. At the core of this dispute is a disagreement over who is more likely to coerce or intimidate union voters: employers or union bosses.

“We think intimidation of voters is wrong, whether it comes from your boss or a union boss,” said Tim Mooney, national coordinator with Save Our Secret Ballot, Inc., a national group based in Las Vegas and Phoenix. “With a secret ballot, you’re the boss.”

The group successfully pushed ballot measures last year in Arizona, South Dakota, and Utah and South Carolina, where an initiative “snuck by” with 86 percent of the vote, Mooney joked. Legislatures in Indiana and Tennessee have passed similar laws this year.

The Arizona chapter of Americans for Prosperity helped push through the initiative in that state, and Save Our Secret Ballot has gotten some help from the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix. While he’s not currently working with Save Our Secret Ballot, the former chairman of the group’s national advisory board is Ernest Istook, a former seven-term congressman from Oklahoma and currently a fellow at the Heritage Institute.

In a June 2009 interview with the Capital Research Center’s Labor Watch newsletter, Istook made it clear proponents were looking intently at California. “We need a SOS Ballot effort in California,” Istook said, but noted that a signature campaign could cost $2 million.

One thing Mooney and labor groups agree on is that the current push has a lot to do with the Employee Free Choice Act pushed by the Obama Administration.

“We saw that the Obama Administration and Congress last year were looking to end secret ballots in union organizing elections,” Mooney said. “We wanted to take the fight out of Washington, D.C., and put it in the hands of voters.”

But any serious fight over the issue would have to take place in D.C., countered Steve Smith, communications director with the California State Labor Federation. That’s because these Save Our Secret Ballot initiatives and bills around the country violate the National Labor Relations Act and seek to preempt the federal law, which explicitly states that elections aren’t necessary to certify unions if an employer doesn’t ask for it. The Arizona law has already been challenged, and will likely head to a state Supreme Court that has already indicated they will almost certainly overturn it, Smith said.

Instead, Smith said, these efforts are part of a national campaign to put the issue in front of voters. They’re also a means of diverting unions and Democrats from other efforts and forcing them to concentrate on these initiatives. This could be particularly important in California in 2012, tying down millions in political funds that could otherwise be used in different campaigns or even shifted out of state.

“The group has been pretty clear that this isn’t necessarily about changing the law,” Smith said. “It’s about a media campaign to support an agenda against the Employee Free Choice Act.”

Smith added, “This is an attack on workers that we’re going to fight as hard as we can, and they know that.”

But potential problems for unions and Democrats don’t end there. The Secretary of State’s office just cleared the “Best Practices Budget Accountability Act” for signature gathering.This initiative, backed by attorney James Harrison with Remcho, Johansen & Purcell, LLP, would constrain future growth of the state budget by demanding offsetting revenue increases or budget cuts for any legislation that would cost more than $25 million in a year. It would also make it more difficult to pass bills, while appearing to give an easier path to “public safety” legislation, traditionally law-enforcement bills favored by Republicans.

Another measure in the title and summary phase is the “Stop Special Interest Money Now Act.” This would appear to be a response to last year’s Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which removed limits on “issue advertising” by corporations and unions.

The act – backed by the firm Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk, LLP, which has been a mainstay legal firm in GOP initiative efforts in California over the years – would  ban both “corporate and labor union contributions to candidates.”

But it would not affect both equally. Further down, it states that it would “Prohibit corporations and labor unions from collecting political funds from employees and union members using the inherently coercive means of payroll deduction.” It would also “Make all employee political contributions by any other means strictly voluntary.”

In other words, it would essentially bar unions from political spending of any kind, outside of directly raising voluntary funds from union members. There is no corresponding clause barring corporations from spending shareholders’ money.

Hiltachk is also working on the “California Deficit Prevention Act,” an effort pushed by Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. It would cap growth in state spending by one percent plus population growth.

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