Features

Nothing but fear itself

National | Californians were frightened away from one ballot measure, but mustered courage on another

Issue: "Rethinking divorce," June 13, 1998

in San Diego - The morning after Tuesday's defeat of California's hotly contested Prop 226, a fresh, blue banner adorned the "No on 226" Web site: "Proposition 226 Defeated! Californians see through anti-union charade!" But Bob Bowen, a Woodland, Calif., broadcast engineer, said union congratulations were the real charade. "There's no con man in the world who doesn't know that after you con someone you've got make sure he thinks he's gotten the best deal in the world," Mr. Bowen said. "That way, you've got a great chance of conning him again." Prop 226, the initiative that sparked a full-scale alert among the nation's labor unions, would have required unions to request permission from members to use payroll deduction dues for political purposes. Mr. Bowen, a Christian conservative who belongs to labor organizations for both communications workers and theatrical and stage employees, called "No on 226" a campaign of deceit, and said his first reaction to news of the measure's defeat was sadness. "I believed in [the measure] and I still believe in it because of its fundamental rightness," he said. "Beneath all the union rhetoric, there is still the fundamental truth that no citizen should be forced to let anyone take their money for political causes." That rhetoric, funded by a fire bucket brigade of union cash poured into California from around the country, included scattershot attempts to link 226 with "fundamentalist, right-wing agendas," HMO privatization, Newt Gingrich, and even the death of police officers. Another California initiative was plagued by similar, though less incendiary, diversionary tactics. Opponents of Proposition 227, a measure written to eliminate the state's failing bilingual education system, claimed that limited-English kids would be relegated to the equivalent of "one-room schoolhouses," and that teachers would be sued if they used a child's native language. But 227 leapt above the rhetoric and slam-dunked opposition voters by a margin of nearly two to one. "We're enthusiastic about the margin of victory," said Prop 227 campaign coordinator Leah Braesch. "It says a lot about what parents of non-English speaking kids feel is required for success in this country." Pre-election polls showed that nearly 60 percent of Latino parents favored 227. Prop 226, though, did not fare as well, losing 53 to 47 percent. Golden Staters initially cast the measure into a statistical dead heat, and for two-and-a-half hours after the polls closed, 226 led returns by about three percent . But at 10:42 p.m. Pacific time, the tide turned and "no" ballots began, barely, to outpace votes affirming 226. The initiative never recovered. But according to Prop 226 co-author Mark Bucher, the fact that the measure was defeated does not mean it's been laid to rest. "I'm encouraged by the gains we've made," Mr. Bucher said. "We've opened up a discussion and union members have been made aware of what's happening to their money. Throughout the campaign, "No on 226" stumpers decried the measure as unnecessary, saying union members already have the right to opt out of political giving. But according to the San Diego Teachers Union literature, teachers who decide not to contribute to union political coffers aren't considered members at all, but "agency fee-payers." They must still pay union fees (less a small refund for the political portion), but by declining to line union war chests, they forfeit the right to vote in union elections. "Any 'right' that includes the provision that union members can't vote on their collective bargaining agreement if they don't support union politics is no right at all," Mr. Bucher said. "It's a wrong." But the upside for Mr. Bucher is the nationwide groundswell of support for campaign reform generated by a "bunch of nobodies in Orange County." "The fact that a guy like me was able to get this involved proves how good our political process is," Mr. Bucher said. "I'm emboldened by this to keep going." With Prop 226 supporters planning to reintroduce the measure in California's 2000 primary, Mr. Bucher's pledge to America's labor unions is reminiscent of a certain ominous promise from the silver screen: "We'll be back."

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