Features

Running scared?

National | Unions in California are pulling out all the stops to protect their flow of political campaign funds

Issue: "Against all odds," May 30, 1998

in San Diego - If virulent propaganda could reach critical mass, the campaign against California's Proposition 226 would already have blown itself into oblivion. Known as the Campaign Reform Initiative, Prop 226 would require employers and labor unions to request permission from workers to use dues gained through payroll deduction for political purposes. Union activists, desperate to grind down overwhelming support for the measure, have painted it as everything from a sly, right-wing bid to "silence working families" to a masterful deception that would hamstring charities, deport U.S. jobs, and even result in the death of police officers. "The only thing this initiative hasn't been blamed for is El Niño," said Frank Ury, the Orange County electrical engineer who co-authored the lightning-rod measure that will appear on California's June 2 primary ballot. "The initiative simply seeks to end forced political contributions. But since we're projected to win, the opposition is like a caged animal. At this point, they'd say anything if they thought it would help their case." The latest round fired in the bitter anti-226 onslaught may prove his point. According to spokesmen from both sides of the issue, a California law-enforcement union hired out-of-state phone banks to tell California voters that Prop 226 would "threaten the lives of law enforcement officers." Ironically, one voter to receive such a call was Prop 226 co-author Jim Righeimer. "Unions claim the initiative would require the release of addresses and social security numbers of police officers," said Mr. Righeimer, who used the call he received to get the lowdown on the phone bank operation. "Not only does Prop 226 not do that, but three separate federal laws make releasing that kind of information a felony." The political storm now raging in the Golden State began as a tempest in a teapot. When Mr. Ury, a vocal supporter of school vouchers and other union anathema, sought reelection to the Orange County School Board, the powerful California Teachers Association (CTA) chipped in $70,000 to secure his defeat. Mr. Ury, who had enjoyed wide support among Orange County teachers, was angered by "the unfair political clout" wielded by the union. So he and fellow conservatives Mr. Righeimer and Mark Bucher decided to fight back by crafting Prop 226, an initiative that would force unions to represent their members' views by pulling the plug on compulsory political contributions. Prop 226's authors patterned their measure after Proposition 134, a successful 1992 Washington state initiative. When Prop 134 passed, political contributions by that state's union members plummeted by 83 percent. Does that precipitous drop in donations signal that union members don't want labor acting as their political voice? "It isn't that," replied "No on 226" spokesman Jose Marino. "It's just that if you give people a choice about what to do with their money, they'll always find another option." The financial duel over Prop 226 is a David and Goliath rerun. Faced with an upstart initiative that seriously threatened their legislative clout, employee organizations across the country quickly circled the wagons, pledging millions to defeat the measure. In media spending alone, "No on 226" outpaces the pro-226 camp by four-to-one. "The irony is that unions are using their members' money without permission to fight for the right to continue to use their members' money without permission," said Mr. Bucher. In another paradoxical twist, Mr. Bucher said CTA bosses pledged $3.2 million to defeat Prop 226, even though nearly 70 percent of its members expressed support for the measure. Significantly, another California ballot initiative is experiencing similar union wire-pulling. According to Proposition 227 spokeswoman Sheri Annis, nearly half of United Teacher of Los Angeles members support 227, a measure that would replace the state's failing bilingual education classes with compulsory English immersion classes for "limited English" students. But the union sided against the initiative and, according to Ms. Annis, won't allow dissenting members to voice their opinions in union meetings or literature. But like 226, Prop 227 is favored to win on June 2, with polls as of May 20 showing 70 percent approval among California voters. Prop 226 not only continues to lead California polls by a significant margin; it has triggered an eastbound tidal wave of similar initiatives, with at least 40 states projected to consider similar legislation by summer's end. "The unions are running scared," said Mr. Ury. "If California falls, the rest of the nation will follow and they know it."

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