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National | California initiative would require unions to get members' OK before using their money for politics

Issue: "Missionary hostages," Feb. 20, 1998

Angry union representatives say Frank Ury's defeat last year in an Orange County school board race touched off his drive to prevent unions from using member dues for political purposes they oppose. Mr. Ury is a co-founder of California's Education Alliance, a group pushing a ballot measure called the Campaign Finance Reform Initiative, which is set for a statewide vote in June.

The charge is partly true, admits Mr. Ury, an engineer for Intel, but another defeat is more to the point: "While I was on the [Saddleback School District] school board, I fought for four years to add one semester of algebra as a graduation requirement," Mr. Ury told World. "It was opposed by the teachers' unions. In the end I lost."

That proved to him that the unions have become too influential, he says. "You don't see the parents wanting to get rid of phonics in the classrooms, wanting to put calculators in the hands of kindergartners."

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Mr. Ury's Orange County neighborhood is a middle-income area, with Toyotas and Fords in the driveways, and kids outside with footballs. If it's a hotbed of conservatism, it's a conservatism of concern, not of Country Club interests. Neither of Mr. Ury's two kids is of school age yet, but he's been involved in the local school district since before Krista, 4, was born. "These kids are why I'm involved at all," he says.

Mr. Ury's CFRI measure would require the state Fair Political Practices Commission (a governor-appointed body) to draw up a form that union members would have to sign before their dues could be used by the unions' political action committees. That could take time, so the unions could be sidelined completely for the 1998 elections, which will include the governor's race, U.S. House seats, and a U.S. Senate seat.

The tightly worded, carefully written measure includes bans on foreign contributions into California campaigns (the current federal ban only affects national races), which should help ensure the initiative's popularity. It was submitted to state officials on Nov. 13, along with 700,000 signatures; a week later, a Sacramento Superior Court judge refused a motion presented by the unions to throw it out.

And a poll last month found that 72 percent of the public supports the initiative. Democrats and union members favor it 2-1.

That's probably why union officials are spooked. A similar measure in Washington state was approved in 1992. The effect has been a drop of 74 percent in the number of state teachers' union members who contribute to political activities. From 1994 to 1996, the number of members contributing to the PAC dropped from 48,000 to 8,000.

"That's the best proof that the unions are out of touch-way out of touch," says Mr. Ury. "It's time the unions were forced to consult their members before spending their money on political races. The decisions will be made by the union members, not the union bosses."

What's at stake in California is the considerable clout held by the California Education Association and other unions. The CEA, for example, helped defeat a school voucher initiative in 1993 by spending about $20 million of its members' money. And it doesn't overlook the smaller races. Last year, it spent nearly $75,000 to unseat Mr. Ury, who mustered only $25,000 to defend himself. By contrast, just four years earlier, he spent just $3,000 to win the seat. It's not just the state unions: The national AFL-CIO spent nearly $200,000 in 1996 to help pass Proposition 215, which legalized so-called "medical use" of marijuana.

The war chest at stake is huge. Because California is a "closed shop" state, teachers in Los Angeles, for instance, must join the teachers' union. Last year, 97 percent of the political money spent by the union was spent on Democratic candidates.

The union is hitting back-hard. Union operatives have cranked out several retaliatory ballot initiatives, including one that would prevent corporations from contributing to campaigns at all (most of the beneficiaries of corporate contributions are Republicans). Two of the other payback measures would take away more than $10 billion a year in tax breaks that now apply to California corporations.

Union leaders have admitted that their main goal with these initiatives is to force the state Chamber of Commerce and Gov. Pete Wilson to withdraw their support for the CFRI. So far, though, Gov. Wilson isn't backing down. He has signed on as honorary co-chairman of the initiative, and last month he sent out a letter to 1 million voters, asking for their support for the CFRI.

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