Unions Rally Membership To Save PACs

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Los Angeles

Elaine Franklin is no conservative ideologue. And, while the 5th grade teacher at Dayton Heights Elementary School here doesn't consider herself a particularly active union member, she generally votes for the candidates her local supports--most of them Democrats.

But when she heard that California's June 2 primary ballot includes an initiative to require unions to obtain members' annual written permission before collecting political contributions from them, she knew she'd cast her vote for it.

"I am looking at it from my perspective," Ms. Franklin, a 12-year veteran educator and member of United Teachers Los Angeles, said one day recently, "and that is, it is going to give me a little bit more of a say in how I spend my money."

What Is 226?

An initiative on the June 2 primary ballot in California that would modify political contributions in several ways. A key provision relating to unions reads: "No labor organization shall use any portion of dues, agency-shop fees, or any other fees paid by members of the labor organization, or individuals who are not members, to make contributions or expenditures except upon the written authorization of the member, or individual who is not a member, received within the previous 12 months on a form. ...''

Just a few blocks from Ms. Franklin's school, on one of the upper floors of the office building owned by the UTLA, a "war room" has been set up for campaign workers to call union members and encourage them to organize opposition to the initiative. It's just one small part a feverish campaign being carried out by teachers' union officials and other labor leaders in California not just to turn the general electorate against the "paycheck protection" initiative--Proposition 226--but also to persuade their own rank and file.

Lurking behind the initiative's promise to strengthen individuals' freedom of choice, labor officials are telling their members, is an effort to wipe out unions' political war chests, particularly that of the powerful California Teachers Association. Affected would be everything from the CTA's ability to fight school voucher plans to labor's strength in helping elect candidates perceived as champions of better working conditions and job protections, union leaders argue.

At his headquarters overlooking Los Angeles' mid-Wilshire section, UTLA President Day Higuchi points out the local's lobbyist, William Lambert, whose powers of persuasion in Sacramento he says would be severely hampered by Proposition 226.

"The only reason that many legislators listen to Bill is that they're helped out with their campaigns with the contributions of unions like UTLA," Mr. Higuchi said. "So if you don't have that influence and everyone else gets to keep theirs or even up the ante, then it's totally unfair."

As the campaign moves into its final weeks, the result is anything but predictable. Poll results released last week show a majority of voters favoring the measure, with union members almost evenly split.

So important is the outcome to advocates and opponents, not only in California but nationwide as well, that both sides have thrown plenty of money and muscle into winning. Although official spending tallies have yet to be released, the proposition's supporters pledged to raise some $10 million. Meanwhile, labor groups like the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the AFL-cio have together committed millions of dollars and a small army of organizers to help run the expensive media campaign aimed at the general public as well as the internal campaigns to sway union members.

"If we're not able to fund politicians, if we're not able to fund drives against initiatives, then we're out of business politically," said CTA Vice President Wayne Johnson. "That's just the bottom line."

Enviable Influence

Although Proposition 226 would affect any labor organization--or employer--that finances political campaigns through payroll deductions, the CTA is the largest beneficiary of such a system.

Members pay about $600 annually to their local and state affiliates and their national parent, the NEA. Out of that, $31.57 goes to the organization's state political action committee. The deductions continue indefinitely, unless members fill out paperwork asking that the money be redirected into the union's general fund. Members pay another $19 a year into a special fund for state initiative campaigns.

Coming from 270,000 members, those deductions have built the state affiliate into a formidable political power. During the 1993-94 election cycle, its PAC gave $1.37 million to candidates for state offices, outspending every other political action committee in California.

Along with the 50,000-member California Federation of Teachers--an AFT affiliate, whose political action committee is subsidized through a monthly $1 payroll deduction--the CTA is widely credited with defeating a state ballot initiative in 1993 that would have created a school voucher program. The organizations spent nearly $10 million on the anti-voucher campaign, far exceeding the voucher proponents' outlay.

Union leaders contend that Proposition 226 was born out of their political foes' jealousy of their might.

"It's very difficult to beat an organization that has 270,000 members that they can marshal to walk precincts, to phone-bank, and so forth," Mr. Johnson said. "So instead of trying to take us head-on in a war on issue after issue, they've decided to try to take us out of the political battle," he added.

'You Shouldn't Be Forced'

The proposition's authors say it was union involvement in local school board elections that prompted them to write the initiative. In the wake of the school voucher defeat in 1993, a group of Orange County residents--led by business owner Mark Bucher--formed an organization called the Education Alliance to raise money and campaign for conservative local school board candidates.

Espousing the principles of "local control and parental rights," the alliance supports charter schools and private and public school choice, and opposes bilingual education.

The formation of the coalition did not guarantee success in electing candidates. Frank Ury, an alliance-supported candidate who had been elected to the Saddleback Valley school board in 1992, claimed his local teachers' union spent some $70,000 in a campaign to knock him off the board in 1996. By contrast, he said, he first won the seat by spending just $3,500.

"It was very demoralizing for teachers who were helping with my campaign," said Mr. Ury, an electrical engineer. "They'd give me a check for $25 or $50, and they would hand it to me and say, 'Frank, I am sorry, but the only thing this money is doing is counteracting money they're already taking from my paycheck.'"

In its 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public school teachers don't have to pay unions for political work, a right extended to private-sector unions in the 1988 Communications Workersof America v. Beck ruling. But few union members know how to exercise their so-called "Beck rights," contend Proposition 226's supporters.

After Mr. Ury's defeat, the group learned of a Washington state ballot initiative that forced public-employee unions to acquire each member's written consent before having money deducted from his or her paycheck for political contributions. Following its passage--with 72 percent of the vote--the Washington Education Association saw a 75 percent drop in contributions to its PAC. ("Political Initiative," Jan. 21, 1998.)

The Washington state initiative inspired Mr. Bucher, Mr. Ury, and another Orange County businessman, Jim Righeimer, to write Proposition 226, which would affect both public-employee and private-sector unions. Although many observers predict the initiative would have the same consequences in California as it did in the Evergreen State, the authors maintain that their motive is not to tilt the political playing field. Rather, they contend, they want to give workers more of a say in how their money is spent.

"You should not be forced to contribute money to politics, and you certainly should not be forced to contribute money to candidates or causes you don't believe in," said Mr. Bucher.

The resentment of teachers who disagree with their union leadership was evident at a recent gathering of about three dozen pro-226 volunteers for a barbecue at the estate of a Newport Beach businessman and Republican activist.

"This is a freedom of choice issue, not a money issue," said teacher Sandra Crandall, standing on a tennis court surrounded by American flags hoisted for the event. "A group that you are forced to join is also taking your money against your beliefs."

Rebutting Messages

That simple message has appeared to resonate with many union members. Last week's Field Poll showed Proposition 226 winning the support of 47 percent of union households, and 55 percent of all likely voters.

Union leaders say their own research confirmed they would have an uphill battle, but they say support has dropped off as voters have learned more about the initiative. Earlier polls that showed far greater support for the proposition also indicated most voters were unaware of the issue.

"They have wrapped a very onerous, anti-union political agenda into a morality issue that is very difficult to explain," Mr. Johnson said. "Because it's very hard to say to people: 'You don't really want to give us your approval to spend money in a political campaign every year.' That's motherhood, apple pie, and democracy. But the real reason it has been put on the ballot is basically to cut off the money," he charged.

While the anti-226 television and radio ads that have just hit the airwaves spread the message that it will silence working people, labor's internal campaign has focused on who's behind the measure.

Although Gov. Pete Wilson, who is the chairman of the pro-initiative campaign, did not support the 1993 measure allowing statewide vouchers because he feared an increase in government spending, the Republican has since called for permitting students in low-performing schools to use state aid to attend private and religious schools.

"It's very hard to sell Pete Wilson as being for the working man or woman in any way," said Aaron Bruhnke, a teacher at San Pedro High School.

Financial backers of Proposition 226 also include the conservative advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform and insurance tycoon J. Patrick Rooney, a long-time supporter of school vouchers.

"These are the essence of the anti-union conservative right," Mr. Johnson asserted. "And it seems to me to be a bit disingenuous for this group of people to claim to be interested in working people and protecting their interests, when that has never seemed to cross their minds before."

A video the CTA produced for its members proclaims that the proposition's "sole purpose is to shut us out of politics in this November's election." If passed, the initiative would take effect in July, giving the union only four months to create a new system to solicit contributions for campaigns that will determine California's next governor. All 80 Assembly posts and 20 Senate positions also are up for grabs.

Labor leaders have promised a legal challenge should Proposition 226 pass. Even if it loses, however, teachers' union officials complain that the initiative has already effectively drained the union of funds and energy it would have otherwise devoted to other campaigns. For example, another measure on next month's ballot is a UTLA-supported initiative that would require that no more than 5 cents of every dollar spent on schools in the state be spent on central administration.

Proposition "226 is more important than the initiative we sponsored," Mr. Higuchi said. "Even though we're still for it, most of our resources are going to fight Prop 226."

A Wedge Issue?

Some observers believe the "paycheck protection" issue has exposed disconsonance between the union rank and file and its elected officials. Union leaders hope most members can be swayed by arguments that Proposition 226 would have negative political repercussions. Yet, they also realize it still may win the endorsement of members who at some point have found themselves on opposite sides of issues from their union leadership.

While CTA leaders acknowledge that as much as 40 percent of their members vote Republican, for example, more than 90 percent of PAC contributions go to Democratic candidates.

Doug Lasken, a 5th grade teacher at the Ramona Elementary School here, said he is torn on Proposition 226 because he disagrees with his local's opposition to another high-profile ballot measure--the initiative that would sharply curtail bilingual education in California schools.

As of last week, Mr. Lasken hadn't decided how he'll vote on Proposition 226 because "the people pushing it appear to be somewhat unsavory."

But other members believe the initiative runs counter to the very idea of a union. Joanne Bluman, a teacher at Los Angeles' Manual Arts Elementary School, said late last month she hadn't heard much about Proposition 226, but she was likely to vote against it.

"My gut tells me that this is the way a democracy works: You vote for people to represent you," she said. "I elect officials I feel will make the best decisions for me."

Unions are hoping that more teachers will agree. "If we can push the union members and their families into 60-40 opposed or something like that," Mr. Higuchi said, "we've got a shot."

Vol. 17, Issue 35, Page 1

Published in Print: May 13, 1998, as Unions Rally Membership To Save PACs
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