May 29, 1998
There is a battle in California over political contributions. Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles has the report.
JEFFREY KAYE: Proponents of Proposition 226 on California's June 2nd ballot hope to change the face of politics.
SPOKESMAN: We have to continue to stay on message. The message is very simple: Proposition 226 says that before you can take money out of person's paycheck, you have to get their permission. That's all it says.
JEFFREY KAYE: Jim Righeimer is a co-author of 226. It would require employers and labor unions to obtain permission annually before using payroll deductions or dues for political purposes.
SPOKESMAN: The union bosses have had this money for way too long to take the dollars out of the paychecks of the workers, and we have to stop that from happening.
JEFFREY KAYE: The target of the initiative is organized labor. Union leaders say the proposition is an attempt to undermine labor's ability to contribute to political campaigns.
DAY HIGUCHI, United Teachers, Los Angeles: We will be missing in action from the statehouse to the legislature to the next school board election. Our voice will be gagged; our enemies will shovel us over a cliff.
JEFFREY KAYE: The proposition has its roots in what's been a growing conflict between powerful political forces. On the one side are public education reformers with a conservative agenda. On the other are well-financed teachers unions, which over the years have challenged and often thwarted the conservatives.
SYLVIA SERA SULLIVAN, School Board Candidate: (October 1992) Our schools need to continue to work to promote traditional family values.
JEFFREY KAYE: Since the early '90s, California conservatives, many of them part of the Christian right, have mounted campaigns to change public education. They've run candidates for office with mixed success, and they've failed to persuade California voters to approve vouchers for religious and private schools. Activists, such as businessman Mark Bucher, were frustrated by losses they attributed to the power and money of the teachers unions. He and computer engineer Frank Ury co-wrote Prop 226.
MARK BUCHER, Co-Author, Proposition 226: Unions exist through the use of political power, through handing out benefits to legislators that support them and punishing them that don't. I happen to have been one that got punished. You can take a look at the state assembly. Right now they've got the benefit of it.
JEFFREY KAYE: Ury and Bucher say that during campaigns conservative union members complained their dues were going to support liberals.
MARK BUCHER: I would often have teachers who would be working for one candidate come and tell me how upset they were the money was coming out of their pay and going toward the campaigns of another candidate and how frustrated they were by that.
JEFFREY KAYE: Ury, Bucher, and Righeimer have dubbed Proposition 226 "the paycheck protection plan." They've received support from prominent Republicans, including California Governor Pete Wilson, a perennial foe of organized labor.
GOVERNOR PETE WILSON, (R) California: Every member of a labor union should be not only free to speak his or her mind; they shouldn't be forced to have their pockets picked for political causes that they don't support and don't believe in.
JEFFREY KAYE: Union activists say the initiative isn't intended to protect workers' rights but to weaken labor's political strength.
SPOKESPERSON: We're going to take our Democratic candidates to the state house in Sacramento.
JEFFREY KAYE: Labor Day rallies like this one four years ago reflect the close relationship between unions and Democratic Party candidates, the chief recipients of labor contributions. Nationally, in 1996, unions gave more than $49 million to congressional and presidential candidates but were still outspent by business eleven to one. Nonetheless, Democrats enjoyed many successes in the '96 elections and labor leaders, such as Dave Sickler, say the proposition is meant to reduce labor's ability to advocate for workers' interests on the political stage.
DAVE SICKLER, Defeat Prop 226 Organizer: But it takes a lot of money to go on television. And that's what we did. We went on television in 1996, and we said, this is where this politician stands on your issues, and it was your issue. It was the eight-hour day. It was public education. It was Social Security and Medicare. It was basic things that working people came together for over a hundred years ago.
JEFFREY KAYE: Sickler spoke at a recent rally organized by the Los Angeles Teachers Union to mobilize against 226. Labor is concentrating its efforts on its own members and calling on supporters, such as the second most powerful California politician, Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa. Villaraigosa, a Democrat, was a teachers union organizer before his election to public office.
ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA, California Assembly Speaker: Thank you. It feels good to be home.
JEFFREY KAYE: He told the teachers that advocates of Prop 226 are wrong to suggest union members cannot influence how labor leaders spend dues.
ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: If they're not spending your money right, you vote them out. If they're spending your money right, they're fighting for you, you keep them in. That's what democracy is all about.
JEFFREY KAYE: Polls show union members have mixed feelings about the initiative. At the Irving Middle School in Los Angeles many teachers oppose the proposition.
TEACHER: We don't need someone else to tell us how to spend our money. That's an internal matter.
JEFFREY KAYE: Do you feel the same way?
SECOND TEACHER: Definitely. I've been with the union for many, many years, and I feel that we elect people that represent us and the things that we want.
JEFFREY KAYE: However, not all feel they've been well represented by their union.
LYNN MIDDLETON, Teacher: I take a very conservative political view. And the union usually supports more liberal candidates. So they're taking my union dues and supporting candidates that I wouldn't support.
JEFFREY KAYE: The California Teachers Association has contributed $12 million to election campaigns over the past four years. It represents some 280,000 teachers and is actively opposing Prop 226.
SPOKESMAN: We are still up on the air; we're just using a different commercial.
JEFFREY KAYE: Already, the CTA has spent $3 ½ million to fight the initiative. CTA Vice President Wayne Johnson says by requiring a check-off system for political funds, the proposition would create a bureaucratic nightmare for unions.
WAYNE JOHNSON, California Teachers Union: What Proposition 226 is saying is that for union members to give money, they have to okay it each year. Now, we know that that simply creates a bureaucracy, which leads to a real reduction in the amount of money that is contributed.
MARK BUCHER: Every other political group that I know of has to get your permission every time. That's when you send 'em a check. So that they consider getting their members' permission once a year onerous just shows how used to taking their money without their permission at all-and so I think that's-that's ridiculous.
SPOKESMAN: Well, this is to gag the worker initiative that you have a chance to vote on June 2nd.
JEFFREY KAYE: Unions fighting the initiative say it's unnecessary, because under current law workers don't have to contribute to the union's political activities. Members who want to pay only for representation and collective bargaining can obtain a partial refund of their union dues. Some unions allow members who don't want to contribute to political activities to redirect dues used for politics.
WAYNE JOHNSON: There's not one school district in this state where a teacher is required to make political contributions to the California Teachers Association. That is all done voluntarily. And even as the vice president, if tomorrow I would decide I didn't want my $37 a year that goes into political contributions going in, I could call my local association right here in Los Angeles, and that money would then go into the general fund.
MARK BUCHER: They like to say you can redirect your money. First of all, many times you're not given the option to redirect it, but what if you don't want to redirect your money? Secondly, if someone wants to take your money for politics, they should have to ask you-they're the ones that should have to get your permission. You shouldn't have to do anything to keep someone from taking your money for politics.
JEFFREY KAYE: National labor unions have committed millions to oppose the proposition. John Sweeney is president of the American Federation of Labor, the AFL-CIO.
JOHN SWEENEY, President, AFL-CIO: It's really a national campaign of deception, to shut workers and their unions out of the political process. Workers have been speaking out on issues, and there are some business types and foundations and corporate-and conservative ideologues, who really don't want workers participating in the political process.
COMMERCIAL SPOKESMAN: And when you take a closer look at Prop 226-
JEFFREY KAYE: Union leaders say the California proposition is part of a national anti-labor attack financed by people known for their support of right-wing causes. Another supporter is Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, whose goal is to cut government in half. His group is supporting similar ballot initiatives for November in Nevada, Colorado, and Oregon, as well as similar legislation in 26 other states.
GROVER NORQUIST: It really is happening at the state level rather than at the federal level, which is an interesting shift when you talk about politics in America-everything from welfare reform to paycheck protection. Other things are happening at the state level now-insurance reform, torte reform. There are a bunch of things that aren't moving at the federal level because the Republicans own the House and the Senate and the Democrats have the presidency, and so nothing seems to move.
JEFFREY KAYE: Legislation similar to California's Prop 226 has also been introduced in Congress. President Clinton has promised to veto the bill should it pass. In California, if Prop 226 is approved and becomes law immediately, it is likely to affect labor's ability to raise money for the November elections.