It's not often that a school board race helps ignite a national movement that gives America's union bosses the shakes. But that is what happened after Frank Ury got dumped as a school trustee in Orange County.
Incensed that he and like-minded conservatives were being knocked off by the powerful California Teachers Assn., Ury and two buddies found a way to fight back: A ballot measure to dramatically curb organized labor's ability to raise money for politics.
After a humble beginning, Proposition 226 promises to become the most heavily financed initiative on California's June ballot, and among the priciest in state history. And it has put California at the forefront of a revolution that could alter the political landscape of America.
Following California's lead, about 30 other states have similar anti-union measures in the works, and proponents expect to spread their gospel to all 50 by next year. It is also a hot-button issue in Congress.
The initiative, dubbed "paycheck protection" by backers, seems simple enough. It would require organized labor to get permission from union members each year before using their dues for political purposes. But the fallout could be devastating to hard-hat liberals: In two states with similar laws now on the books, union contributions to politics fell by more than 75%.
Foes of the measure talk in apocalyptic terms. By undercutting some of the most devoted donors to the Democratic Party, the initiative could leave the political battlefield largely to Republicans. Conservatives, they warn, would run wild with a rightist agenda, slashing Medicare and Social Security, privatizing schools, curbing workers rights, and boosting the advantages enjoyed by big business.
Although the measure in California remains amorphous to most voters, that will change in the weeks before the June 2 election, as dueling TV advertising campaigns clog prime time.
Backers say they are willing to spend up to $10 million and won't be surprised if unions spend three times that. Though foes say their budget is hardly so robust, the AFL-CIO on Thursday approved a plan to spend $13 million on campaign issues nationwide, with most of the money going to defeat Proposition 226.
The measure has been embraced by a coterie of national Republican leaders, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate GOP Leader Trent Lott. Gov. Pete Wilson, who is chairman of the Yes on 226 campaign, has dispatched his top political operatives into the fray.
"This is an extremely important debate that will affect politics for a generation to come," said Grover Norquist, whose Washington, D.C.-based Americans for Tax Reform is shepherding the national anti-union movement and donated $441,000 to put Proposition 226 on the ballot. "Our success in California will prove helpful in the rest of the country."
Teachers Union's Power at Stake
Union bosses promise a tough nationwide fight, but their beachhead is the Golden State. If Proposition 226 can be stopped, they surmise, it might slow the march of anti-union measures across the country.
They say the proposal will undercut workers, silencing the voice of the average employee who depends on the union to be heard at the state Capitol and in Congress. They also say it is a backlash against the growing strength of unions and their success in the 1996 elections, when labor spent $119 million to help Democrats nearly retake the House.
"They're trying to get back at us," said John Sweeney, AFL-CIO national president. "They don't want us to be strong. . . . This is an attempt by some wealthy people to keep workers from participating in the political process."
Opponents of Proposition 226 predict that it could have particularly harsh ramifications in California for school teachers.
The California Teachers Assn. has long been the most powerful union voice in the state. If its political might was drained, it could give renewed energy to advocates of school privatization. The CTA, which spent more than $9 million to defeat a school vouchers initiative in 1993, expects a similar battle in November or the 2000 elections.
The teachers union has committed $3 million to fight Proposition 226, while the National Education Assn. has chipped in $500,000.
"It's up and running on the West Coast and it's moving East," said Kathleen Lyons, an NEA spokeswoman. "We're concerned about it nationwide."
Backers of the measure include some of the main players in the vouchers battle. Indiana insurance tycoon J. Patrick Rooney, who gave $49,000 to boost the initiative, is a longtime champion of vouchers, supports privatizing Medicare and is an ally of Gingrich. Howard Ahmanson, a conservative Christian from Orange County, was a force behind California's 1993 voucher fight.
And the three Orange County activists who first pushed Proposition 226--Ury, Jim Righeimer and Mark Bucher--all are devout voucher supporters.
The early involvement of Norquist and Rooney has also prompted charges from foes that Proposition 226 is being pushed by out-of-state individuals with no interest in the rights of California's working men and women.
"They're not union members, they're not Californians," said John Hein, CTA government relations director. "They're well-known Republican activists with a sharp focus against public schools."
Unions Fear Drop-Off in Contributions
Bucher, who is co-chairing the 226 campaign, calls the charges deceiving. Rooney isn't currently a player in the California fight, he said, and Norquist is only involved at the national level, not in steering Proposition 226 strategy. He also noted that organized labor will pour money in from outside California.
"We're down here, we're Californians, we're just business guys," said Bucher, who came up with the ballot measure idea. "We're getting our money from just regular individuals. More than 12,000 people have already given to us."
Opponents of the measure contend that a change in law isn't needed. Workers who do not want their dues going for politics have the option of quitting the union and paying a smaller fee to have labor chiefs represent them during contract talks.
That fact prompted William B. Gould, a Stanford University law professor serving as President Clinton's National Labor Relations Board chief, to declare last month that Proposition 226 is "mischievous, bad policy and, in all probability, unconstitutional."
If Proposition 226 wins, union attorneys have promised to file suit, arguing that it would block organized labor's free speech rights.
At the California Teachers Assn., members pay $31.57 each year for politics--$19 for initiative campaigns, $12.57 for everything else. It may not be much, but it can add up quickly in a union the size of the CTA, which has about 285,000 members.
And if history is any gauge, labor leaders have reason to be worried about the potential for a startling drop in political participation if workers are given an option.
In Washington state, voters approved a similar anti-union measure in 1992 and the results were dramatic. The state teachers union saw the number of members donating to politics drop from 48,000 to 8,000. Republicans took over both houses of the Legislature at the next election.
Similar results unfolded in Michigan after a 1994 law was approved. Cash holdings by the five major labor unions in the state plummeted 75% by the next election.
Such an outcome could be devastating for Democrats in California, where unions routinely snub Republican candidates.
Although the GOP says two of every five union members are Republican, unions give 97% of their money to Democrats. Despite such lopsided largess, labor is outspent by big business in federal races 7 to 1, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Buoyed by business contributions, Republicans out-raise Democrats 2 to 1 in a typical election year.
In the short term at least, passage of Proposition 226 could give Republicans a big fund-raising edge in November's pivotal elections to pick a governor and U.S. senator.
Democrats also find themselves cash-hungry to defend numerous open seats in the state Senate. Moreover, the November election will largely determine which party will rejigger California's political boundaries in next decade's reapportionment.
Proposition 226's supporters claim that union leaders are fighting an uphill battle just to win over their own members--a recent independent poll showed that two of three support the measure. They also say union arguments against the initiative are blatantly "counterintuitive."
"If this is really going to hurt the unions and the Democrats, if they can't survive without coerced contributions, there's something wrong there," Bucher said. "If they're that afraid of it, maybe they need to adjust their policies so they don't have to reach into workers' pockets."
The measure's boosters also contend that unions make it very difficult for members to opt out of paying dues for politics. "They take you to court," groused Norquist, "or they break your knees."
Wilson Sees State as a 'Trendsetter'
So far, Proposition 226 is resonating with voters. Polls have shown that more than 70% support the measure. But union leaders say those results are misleading. In focus groups, they have been able to knock down support below 50% by explaining the full impact of the initiative and the motives behind it. They said they are seeing similar results with recalcitrant union members.
"Once they realize why this is happening, how it will weaken their ability to participate in the political process, they get it," said Gail Kaufman, campaign strategist for No on 226. "Like any issue that's cleverly packaged, it doesn't take long to discover what the real deal is."
Labor has won at least one victory, getting major business interests in California to remain on the sidelines for the June campaign. It did so by threatening to launch counter-initiatives that would abolish business tax breaks and block corporate political donations.
The measure's backers also can point to a victory. Proposition 226 will siphon off huge sums of union money before June that otherwise could have been used to boost Democrats in the general election.
For Wilson, there is political capital to be made if Proposition 226 wins. He has taken to the fight with the same elan he lent California ballot battles over affirmative action and the rights of illegal immigrants. During a three-day trip last week to Washington, Wilson painted the capital to raise money and win support for 226.
"California has often been a trendsetter for the nation," Wilson said during a speech Thursday to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "The state that gave America Ronald Reagan's revolution has . . . continued to offer common sense remedies to what clearly are abuses of power."
Critics say Wilson's backing of Proposition 226 seems a calculated move to broaden his base and donor pool as he eyes a run for president in 2000. But a top aide played down such motivations, saying the governor simply wants to help rectify a wrong.
"This campaign is about fundamental fairness," said Sean Walsh, Wilson's spokesman. "It's about taking the stranglehold of special interests off the throats of Sacramento lawmakers, some of whom appear to be merely lap dogs of the unions."
Times staff writer Jodi Wilgoren in Washington contributed to this story.
* POLL TASK
The new blanket primary this June will result in the longest ballot in state history. A3
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
What it would do: Require unions to get worker permission annually before using dues for politics.
Arguments for: Brings fairness for workers who don't support their union's positions on political issues and candidates. Allows them to more easily opt out of union politics instead of going through the onerous and intimidating process of quitting a union.
Arguments against: Though promising fairness, has hidden agenda of undermining union political clout so the voices of working families are silenced in the political process. Besides, existing laws allow workers to quit union if they don't want dues spent on politics.
Supporters: Gov. Pete Wilson, Americans for Tax Reform, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other Republican leaders, Orange County Education Alliance, California Republican Party, Orange County Republican Party, Assn. of Builders and Contractors, National Federation of Independent Business.
Opponents: California Democratic Party, AFL-CIO, California Teachers Assn., California Professional Firefighters, California Nurses Assn., California State Employees Assn., California Organization of Police and Sheriffs, other unions and Democratic lawmakers.