Proposed initiative targets unions’ political clout

For unions, it’s like a recurring nightmare – the attempt by Republicans and businesses to limit the unions’ ability to finance political campaigns.

Thus far, those efforts have been beaten back. But as the 2012 election cycle looms, the battle is getting under way again.

Currently, members of state-employee unions have funds automatically deducted from their paychecks to cover union dues.

While some may see it as a way to avoid the hassle of filing monthly dues, the fact that these funds often go to union-backed political campaigns has inspired anger in California’s business community – and even among the employees who may favor differing candidates.

The movement to stop the automatic deductions from funding political campaigns has been known as Paycheck Protection by union foes and as Paycheck Deception by the unions themselves. Now, the fight is getting even more intense with a proposal to deny unions the power to contribute to candidates at all.

A proposed initiative now in circulation called the Stop Special Interest Money Now Act by its supporters, would prohibit the use of payroll-deducted funds for political projects. It would still allow union members to voluntarily contribute money to political campaigns, if they authorized it in a written form to be submitted yearly.

Some four million unionized workers could be affected by this initiative. Corporations and contractors would also be affected by the new regulations, a key difference from earlier versions. However, the proposed initiative does go further, additionally preventing the unions and corporations themselves from contributing directly or indirectly to candidates and candidate- controlled committees.  

This however would not affect unions’ ability to contribute to federal campaigns, which are given through Political Action Committees.

Measures to institute Paycheck Protection have occurred before.

In 2010, a similar proposal attempted but failed to reach the ballot. In 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s special election included Proposition 75, which had similar aims but met with defeat.

In 1998, Proposition 226 also tried to halt payroll deductions. Gubernatorial Candidate Gray Davis’s opposition to Proposition 226 earned him crucial union support. Unions spent over $22 million dollars to defeat the measure.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision Communications Workers v. Beck in 1988 allows union members to prohibit their dues being used to pay for activities that are separate from collective bargaining. Similar measures have been proposed in Colorado and Oregon and both were defeated. Utah, Idaho, Ohio, Wyoming, Michigan and Washington all have Paycheck Protection laws.

The latest ballot initiative is backed by Californians Against Special Interests, a group that includes a number of Republicans and business interests, including an array of Orange County political groups.

“No one can question that California is in the vise-like grip of special interests – both corporations and unions. The average Californian’s needs are buried under a landslide of special-interest money,” said Michael Capaldi, a spokesperson for the proposed initiative.

“The National Institute for Money in State Politics says last year $716 million was contributed to state candidates and political campaigns,” he added. “They believe that excessive funding of political movements from state unions and corporations has given them far too much control over government policy.”

AT&T spent $760,000 in state legislative races alone. With that, they invested in 99 percent of the Assembly and 98 percent of Senate races. AT&T can’t do that under SSIMCASI.
Californians Against Special Interests has raised around $1 million in support of their measure, donated from individuals and groups that include the Lincoln Club of Orange County.
Opposition to the bill is strong.

Bruce Blanning, executive director for Professional Engineers in California Government, says the campaign is based on deception.

“It isn’t really about protecting the paycheck at all. It’s about limiting how a person’s money can be spent, regardless of what that person wishes. The measure prohibits spending money in a certain way, even if it gives the impression that the opposite is true.”

“It prohibits employees from designating if they wish to use their dues in certain purposes and it prohibits the union from spending money in certain ways,” he added. “The measure explicitly prohibits union from making contributions to any candidate. It also prohibits employees from having any of their dues that are deducted from being used for contributions to candidates or ballot measures. If there was a ballot measure that would eliminate the retirement plan, money could not be deducted from employees’ paychecks to oppose that measure.”

Blanning contends the measure would hamper unions’ abilities to function.

“It prohibits the unions from engaging in activities that it has historically engaged in and that its members may want it to engage in. That would hamper any organization from pursuing what it considers its objective to be.”

Proponents of Paycheck Protection may believe that money deducted from dues is spent against workers’ wishes, although Blanning explains that there already is a check on that – union elections.  

“The members pick the union. They elect the leaders of the union.” He explains the vital role of state worker unions. “The purpose of the public sector is to have the government employees who work with the management who are elected by the people. That’s what collective bargaining does and part of that is supporting or opposing candidates or ballot measures. That’s how the process has always worked.”

Paycheck Protection has also been said to empower corporate interests at the expense of union workers.  

Capaldi contends the initiative isn’t aimed just at unions, even though its main proponents are sharply anti-union.

“The Stop Special Interest Money Now Initiative cuts special interest power, but it does that across the board – it hits corporations and unions at the same time. SSIM’s philosophy is simple: It attacks at every point where money changes hands between special interests and government,” he said.

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