Their views, their dues

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IN 1998, THIS PAGE OPPOSED Proposition 226, the so-called paycheck-protection measure that sought to bar labor unions from spending a member’s dues for political activities in the absence of that member’s consent. We considered that initiative a disingenuous “good government” move aimed at diminishing the voice of only one side on public policy debates, and we would oppose such a proposition again if it were on this year’s ballot.

But contrary to some of the arguments being mustered both for and against Proposition 75, this election’s version of “paycheck protection” is significantly different than Proposition 226: It applies only to public employee unions. We support this more narrowly tailored initiative primarily as a means of lessening the power of public employee unions in Sacramento, but also as a way of reinforcing the right of union members to insist that their hard-earned income not be diverted to political causes they don’t endorse.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that union members cannot be forced to finance political activity, and Proposition 75 merely requires that public employee unions get written consent from their members before their dues and fees are used for political purposes. Currently, union members must request specifically that their dues not be spent on politics, and there is some question about how realistic a choice this is in some unions. Shifting the burden to the union to gain the consent of a member -- as Washington, Utah and other states now require -- does not seem onerous, and may even encourage greater accountability on the part of union leadership.


Proposition 75 opponents argue that this is unfair because there is no similar move to curtail the discretion of business lobbyists to invest shareholder resources in politics. But the analogy is flawed, given that this initiative applies only to public employee unions. It’s not private businesses that sit across the negotiating table from public employee unions; it’s the taxpayers and their elected representatives, acting as stewards of the public interest.

If this notion sounds almost quaint, it is, because it has become so divorced from reality. At many levels of government, public employee unions, aided by their political war chests, have gained control over both sides of the negotiating process. When public employee unions wield the type of influence they now do in California, too much governing becomes an exercise in self-dealing.

To take one example, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has acknowledged it will take a “holy jihad” to assume control of the local school district because teachers unions are so powerful in Los Angeles and Sacramento. Although the mayor opposes Proposition 75, his statement illustrates the need for it.

That said, this measure will hardly take public unions out of the political game. They will still be able to raise considerable sums to influence elections, and they will face no restrictions to continue spending on “issue advocacy.” Nor are we under any illusion about the partisan motives of many of Proposition 75’s backers, who see this as a means of making it harder for Democrats to raise campaign cash.

But the tactical political repercussions here are not so easily discerned. Democrats may become more popular among voters if they are seen as less beholden to special interests. Moreover, this page will continue to support campaign financing proposals that help cleanse the political system, including more public financing of elections.

For now, Proposition 75 constitutes an important step in the right direction.