Spending member dues on political campaigns

Today’s topic: Should the unions that represent employees paid with taxpayer dollars face tighter restrictions on political contributions, similar to what Proposition 75 supporters tried but failed to do in 2005? What about Proposition 75 did California unions find so unfair?

California voters have already spoken -- twice
Point: John Tanner

This question has already been loudly answered -- by California voters and by the U.S. Supreme Court. Voters defeated Proposition 75 in 2005, just like its twin Proposition 226 in 1998. Voters across the country have rejected dozens of other similar bills in recent years.

These measures are deceptive, unclear and unnecessary. Union members’ political contributions are strictly voluntary, and the U.S. Supreme Court already ruled that union workers can choose to prevent their dues from being used for politics -- just by filling out a simple form. So why do these malicious initiatives keep coming? It’s because the people backing them want to weaken the voice of working people.

Our political system is built on balance, and our economy should be too. As the national economic crisis shows, we’re sounder economically when working people have a say.

Last year, the collapse of politically powerful companies such as Lehman Bros. and American Insurance Group sent shock waves across our economy. That’s what happens when the people who make the rules are the ones who profit from them. Where was the Bush administration while this meltdown was brewing? The Wall Street Journal reported this year that the Bush administration made 103 non-prosecution agreements with U.S. companies between 2002 and 2009 -- including with AIG. The Clinton administration did the same thing only 11 times.

Just this week, former Bank of America employees alleged that the company targets low-income working people and Latinos who can’t afford and don’t need financial products pushed by the bank and the choking debt that comes with them; click here to read The Times’ article about it. The Service Employees International Union supports these employees as they blow the whistle on these practices. We are proud to be one of the organizations that advocates for working families.

Proposition 75 and other measures like it have nothing to do with fairness or choice. They are designed exclusively to weaken the labor movement and the American middle class that we are a foundation of.

Let’s look more closely at the numbers you used Wednesday to allege that California public employees are paid too well, Jon. In March 2007, the average California public employee made $4,265.14, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That just barely met what a family living in Los Angeles needed to earn to pay for basic bills, according “Making Ends Meet,” a study done by the California Budget Project.

Is this a “lavish” lifestyle, as you said, Jon? Hardly. But public employees are the backbone of middle-class communities in South Los Angeles, Riverside and other areas hit hard by the economic collapse.

President Obama’s campaign opened a lot of people’s eyes to the power of ordinary people to build strong organizations and fight for change. That campaign was won thanks to grass-roots organizations employing age-old tactics, such as talking to voters.

That’s what a labor union really is: a group of people who come together to have a voice. We’re essential to keeping the country and California strong.

John Tanner is executive director of SEIU Local 721, which represents more than 80,000 public-sector employees across Southern California.

What’s so threatening about asking before spending?
Counterpoint: Jon Coupal

In 2005, Proposition 75 was perceived by labor bosses as such a huge threat to the political power of government employee unions that they vowed they would defeat it at any cost. They weren’t joking. After spending more than $100 million (not a typo) against the four measures constituting the governor’s reasonable reform package, including Proposition 75, it lost 46.5% to 53.5%.

At issue in 2005, of course, was not the 1st Amendment rights of the unions themselves, but the fact that government employee unions are the most potent political force in California because they are able to spend millions of dollars in each election cycle. Much of this money, while technically “voluntary,” is automatically extracted from members’ paychecks unless they affirmatively act to “opt out.”

Thus, as a matter of law, while state workers can apply to keep their dues from being spent on politics, many fear they will then be identified as “malcontents” and will become the likely targets of harassment and retribution. Most state employees find it easier just to go along and keep their mouths shut. Proposition 75 was eminently reasonable, requiring only that the union obtain annual written consent prior to members’ dues being used for political activity. But powerful labor interests were so threatened by this proposal that they unleashed a torrent of negative advertising against it.

Most reasonable people do not object to unions that use dues to assist in the bargaining process or to support unemployed union members. The problem is that millions of dollars of government union dues (which of course start out as taxpayer dollars) are spent to support political candidates with whom members may not agree, on ballot measures to raise taxes or to oppose reform measures that could make government run more efficiently on behalf of all Californians. One of the reform measures against which the government unions spent the aforementioned $100 million was a modest spending limit that could have headed off our current state economic crises, a crisis that detrimentally impacts all Californians, including state employees. I wonder if the unions still believe whether those funds were well-spent.

Our state and its employees would be better off if the onus were put on the union bosses to get permission before spending members money on issues not directly related to union business. The good news here is that the ranks of dissenting union members is rapidly growing. At some point in future, it will be a coalition of these dissenting members joining with taxpayers and reform groups who will finally remove the shackles of government-union oppression.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.