A ballot fight looms over limiting the use of government workers’ union dues for political purposes, a life-or-death issue for organized labor. Two similar initiatives have been rejected in the recent past, including the 1998 battle over “paycheck protection” that ultimately played a significant role in the election of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

A group of Orange County political players, led by Irvine attorney Mark Bucher and Costa Mesa Mayor Alan Mansoor, filed a pair of proposed ballot initiatives with the state attorney general’s office for an official title and summary, the first step to placing them on the ballot. One proposal would bar public employee unions from deducting money from a worker for political purposes. The second requires a public employee union to get advance permission in writing before deducting money for political activity.

“I don’t really see this as a partisan issue,” said Bucher, a Republican, who led a campaign in 1998 in support of Proposition 226, the “paycheck protection” initiative.  “An employee should have to give permission before a union can use its money for politics. However the money is collected, the union has to get permission from its members to do that.”

Bucher declined to discuss the funding for the latest initiatives, although he expected to see involvement “from the grass roots movements we’ve seen in the past couple of years.” Others signing the initiatives’ filing included Dawn Wildman, an anti-tax activist, and Mark Meckler, who organizes anti-tax “Tea Parties.” The proposals are all but certain to draw financial support from groups opposed to organized labor in the past, such as the business community, manufacturers and Republic political groups inside and outside California, among others.

Added to the political mix faced by public employee unions is another proposed initiative to lower pension benefits, bump up the age of retirement and establish a statewide pension rate. Details of that proposal were reported by the CalPensions blog. A group called the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, which was founded by forrmer Republican Assemblyman Keith Richman of Northridge, is sponsoring the pension initiative. It hopes to get the initiative on the November 2010 ballot.

The combination of dues-limiting initiatives combined with proposed limits on workers’ pensions is all but certain to lead to a major political battle.

Labor views attempts to limit their political activities as highly partisan.

“It’s another example of the right-wing attack on public employees,” said Bruce Blanning of the 13,000-member Professional Engineers in California Government. “No public employee has to belong to its union and no public employee has to allow any money to be used for political purposes. Each year, they get a chance to object to that, and if they do object to that, the money is not spent.”

Blanning and others noted that mounting campaigns against the dues and pension proposals would be costly. “We’ll have to educate the public and that’s expensive,” he added.

Blocking the use of dues for political purposes or requiring prior consent cripples the unions’ ability to advocate for their causes and divides union members on political action, they say. The proposed initiatives would affect all public employee groups, including three of the most powerful, the 95,000-member Local 1000 of the Service Employees International Union, the 340,000-member California Teachers Association and the 30,000-member California Correctional Peace Officers Association. The umbrella union groups, such as the California Labor Federation which is affiliated with groups representing some 4 million workers, also are closely watching the ballot proposals.

The fight over Proposition 226 resulted in galvanizing organized labor, according to political analysts on both sides of the issue.

Proponents were outspent about 10-to-1 by the opponents, who by Election Day in June 1998 had spent more than $22 million to block the measure. The opposition came mostly from labor unions and their traditional Democratic allies.

The most visible supporter of Proposition 226 was former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, who said it would prevent union shakedowns.

But labor denounced the Proposition as hypocritical, noting that it sought to block unions’ contributions but allowed the contributions of corporate interests and company shareholders. In the end, the proposition was defeated by about 300,000 votes, or about 53 percent to 47 percent. The fierce campaign energed labor's grass roots groups, who remained active after the Jujne election and campaigned hard for Davis, who ultimately defeated GOP rival Dan Lungren in a landslide. 

Seven years later, Gov. Schwarzenegger led a Republican- and business-backed attempt, Proposition 75, to require prior consent of public employees to use their union dues for political purposes. That measure, part of a package of changes sought by the governor’s GOP advisers and legislative supporters, also was rejected, as were the governor’s other proposals.

The track record, then, is that “paycheck protection” measures face an uphill political fight. But labor and other opponents, fearful that the proposal may merge at any time, are always on their guard.

“The reality is that if you ask people generally whether they should have more control over their money, voters would say yes. Voters like control, so to defeat it there has to be a sustained campaign to defeat it. Those people who oppose these measures, they think there is always a potential threat to pass them,” said political strategist Matt Rexroad. “When there’s no campaign for or against and it just appears on the ballot, there is a possibility it would just pass.”

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