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Published in Print: June 10, 1998, as Unions Hail Save of Payroll Deductions for Politics

Unions Hail Save of Payroll Deductions for Politics

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California's powerful teachers' unions and its other labor organizations can support their favorite candidates unencumbered by new restrictions on their fund raising, after voters' rejection last week of a measure that union officials claimed would have tied their hands in the political arena.

The defeat, by a vote of 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent, in a state that is seen as a political bellwether also was considered a blow to a national effort under way to get similar "paycheck protection" measures passed in other states and by the U.S. Congress.

"We feel fabulous," Kenneth C. Burt, the political director of the 50,000-member California Federation of Teachers, said the day after the June 2 vote on Proposition 226. "And we're going to go on in November to elect a governor who will make education a top priority."

Such politicking would have been much harder had the ballot initiative passed, labor leaders argued. The measure would have required unions to get annual written permission from each member before any money deducted from his or her paycheck could be used for political contributions. When a similar measure went into effect in Washington state in 1994, the number of members contributing through deductions to the political arm of the Washington Education Association plummeted, from 48,000 to 12,000.

Although all California unions that collect political funds through such deductions would have been affected by 226, the biggest would have been the 256,000-member California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. Its political action committee consistently ranks among the state's top spenders and is one of the Democratic Party's most loyal supporters.

Muscle Flexing

While the ballot issue threatened to deflate labor's political clout, the campaign against it turned into a case study of just how strong that clout can be.

With the help of such national organizations as the NEA, the AFL-cio, and the American Federation of Teachers, the parent group of the CFT, the proposition's opponents spent some $20 million on their campaigns, according to analyses by California newspapers. In addition to the expensive television time that money bought, the groups marshaled their members to run phone banks, hold issue forums at schools, and go door to door in critical voting precincts.

Labor leaders were jolted by early polls showing strong support for the measure not just among voters in general, but also among union members. Union officials found themselves organizing campaigns to sway the general electorate and their own members. ("Boosters of 'Payroll Protection' View Calif. As Pacesetter," May 13, 1998.)

"It is amazing to be able to bring down an initiative that had more than 70 percent of people supporting it," said Craig B. Holman, a project director at the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonpartisan think tank in Los Angeles.

After initially shying away from the confrontation with labor, business interests pumped more than $2 million into the pro-226 effort in the campaign's waning days. That included $250,000 from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington and $50,000 from Pittsburgh newspaper publisher Richard Mellon Scaife.

Even so, the pro-226 forces were outspent this year by as much as 5-to-1. Still, supporters of Proposition 226 pledged last week to continue their fight. "It's a lot of work, but we did it before when we didn't have the resources we have now," said Mark Bucher, the Orange County businessman who was a co-author of the proposition.

Depleted Funds

Despite the outcome last week, political observers predict that Proposition 226 will leave an imprint on the fall elections. "It depleted money that would have gone into the general election, and the Republicans clearly understand that," Mr. Holman said.

Far from throwing sand in the gears of their political machine, union leaders contend, the initiative may have made it stronger.

"There's no question that candidates who were expecting big checks didn't get them because we were working on this issue," Mr. Burt said. "But [our members] now see politics more through a labor lens than they might have otherwise."

Vol. 17, Issue 39, Page 16

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