Gov. Pete Wilson, who in June lost a bruising election fight against organized labor over use of union dues in political campaigns, ordered Thursday that state workers and teachers be told they can withhold their dues from use for political activities.
With four months remaining in his term, the Republican governor issued an executive order directing state agencies and school districts to tell workers of their existing right to deny expenditure of their union dues for political or other causes.
"This is not an exercise in philosophical disagreements or an engagement in campaigns past, present or future," said Wilson, who concedes that he is intrigued by the idea of again running for president.
Public employee unions immediately criticized the governor, describing his order as a futile attempt to rekindle Proposition 226 and to garner national attention.
"We wonder what suddenly emerged from his subconscious as he leaves office that he feels a compulsion to inform state employees of this 22-year-old law," said Drew Mendelson of the California State Employees Assn.
"Now he is attempting to do to state employees what he failed to do to all union members through Proposition 226," Mendelson said.
Wilson insisted that his order, which could be rescinded by the next governor, is intended to drive home the point that in a democracy "no person should be forced to make contributions to political or ideological causes which he or she opposes."
At a news conference where he accepted honorary chairmanship of a national right-to-work campaign, Wilson claimed that public employee union members are "unaware of their rights" under state and federal law to withhold funds unrelated to collective bargaining activities.
"That's because their unions don't tell them and the Clinton administration doesn't want them to know," Wilson said.
He cited a series of legal rulings, including a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision, that established the right of private and government workers to withhold portions of their dues used for political activities. Such restrictions long have been the law in California.
Aides estimated that about 500,000 Civil Service, higher education and local school employees would be notified. The cost would be small, Wilson said.
Wilson directed the state Public Employment Relations Board, whose members he appointed, to implement the order. Employees soon will be informed by notices at work sites, computer memos and Internet postings, the governor said.
Wilson's action drew criticism from leading public employee unions, his longtime antagonists. They are particularly angry over his refusal to grant most state workers a pay raise since 1995.
"This is an attempt to get more national attention for a run for president," said Dennis Trujillo, who represents state attorneys, scientists and engineers.
Trujillo said that only a "very small" percentage of union dues is spent on political activities and that union officers are in close contact with their members on political expenditures.
Wilson and organized labor went to war over Proposition 226, a June 2 ballot initiative that would have crippled the political muscle of unions by requiring members to give written consent annually to use their dues for political activities.
Organized labor mobilized a massive turnout against the proposal and turned what had appeared to be an easy winner for Wilson into a decisive defeat.
Asked why he is pressing to publicize rights under a 1977 Supreme Court decision, Wilson conceded that "we are a little bit late, I would agree."
He said he learned of the issue as it applied to public employees after the Proposition 226 campaign.
At the news conference, Wilson was named honorary chairman of a nationwide campaign to inform workers of their rights to withhold union dues for political purposes.
Called "Operation Liberty Bell," the effort is sponsored by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization.