‘Paycheck protection’ or partisan ploy

ROBERT KROL and SHIRLEY SVORNY are professors of economics at Cal State University, Northridge.

IN THE Nov. 8 special election, voters must decide whether public employee unions will be allowed to continue to back candidates and causes their members do not support. Proposition 75 would require union leadership to ask before using a member’s dues for political purposes.

Currently, state employees who do not agree with their union’s political objectives may pay a so-called agency fee rather than union dues. Agency fees cannot be directly used for political purposes. However, employees who select this route forfeit the right to vote on union issues.

Under Proposition 75, workers would continue to pay dues and would get to vote, but they wouldn’t have to see their dues go to political causes that they don’t agree with.


Even opponents of the initiative acknowledge that it would reduce the unions’ political influence.

In 2003-2004, the California Teachers Assn. reported political contributions that totaled $15.9 million, according to the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a Washington state think tank. Of the CTA funds spent on partisan elections, 89% went to Democratic candidates. In California, nearly 45% of voters chose President Bush in 2004, and only 43% of voters are registered Democrats. Even if union members are considered to be disproportionately liberal, 89% shows extremely lopsided support of Democratic causes.

The CTA has accused Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of trying to stifle the voices of union members, and one of its mailings shows five union members with duct tape covering their mouths. Just the opposite is true. The union’s leaders are spending members’ money to oppose a proposition that would give members more say over the group’s political agenda.

The union’s strong opposition to Proposition 75 indicates that its leaders fear a significant drop in funding if the initiative passes. Evidence from other states corroborates the expectation that, when given the choice, members will not support the type of political contributions we have seen in California.

In Washington state, a similar initiative was passed in 1992. The Evergreen Foundation reports that since then, in most years, only 15% of union members contributed to the Washington Education Assn. Political Action Committee. Utah passed a similar law in 2001 and had similar results. Given such figures, it is clear that union leadership is often off-base in representing the political views of union members.

Opponents of Proposition 75 argue that giving union members a voice in political spending would be akin to giving stockholders a voice in corporate campaign spending. But a stockholder who disapproves of campaign contributions can easily invest elsewhere. A public employee union member, unhappy with the way dues are spent, can’t so easily quit his job.

Also, a corporation’s actions can be measured by external market checks, such as fluctuating stock prices, and the board of directors can be held immediately accountable. Whether a union’s political actions would be beneficial or harmful to the membership cannot be measured in a similar way.

Union leadership has adopted a standard strategy of diversion, suggesting that the passage of Proposition 75 will hurt education, health and safety. In fact, Proposition 75 will more closely align the political activities of a union with the positions of its members.