Boosters of 'Payroll Protection' View Calif. as Pacesetter
Teachers' unions and their political foes expect next month's primary-election ballot in California to set the pace for a national movement on the issue of "paycheck protection."
Voters in the Golden State will consider a June 2 initiative to require labor organizations to obtain their members' annual permission before having money deducted from their pay for political contributions.
Supporters are hoping that approval of the initiative, Proposition 226, will add momentum to a campaign to pass similar measures in all 50 states and by Congress. Union officials fear diminished political clout in the country's most populous state and the ripple effect it could have on their national fund-raising efforts.
"I think [the unions] understand that this is national phenomenon, and a California victory will speed things on in other states," said Grover Norquist, the president of the Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform. "If the labor unions can't win in California, where can they win?"
Mr. Norquist's conservative organization is spearheading a drive to take the issue nationwide. The group last fall gave more than $400,000 to Proposition 226's signature-gathering campaign, and has since encouraged similar efforts elsewhere.
He now counts 25 states among those where legislation has been introduced or where signature gathering is under way. Backers in Colorado, Nevada, and Oregon are working to place initiatives on their states' November ballots. Wyoming this March passed a version of paycheck protection, while Washington state voters approved one of the earliest ballot initiatives in 1992.
But Mr. Norquist is banking on a victory in California to give the movement an even bigger push. The tax-reform group's strategy is to introduce measures next year even in those states that have rejected them.
While proponents frame the issue as one of workers' rights, labor leaders say the measures are designed to enfeeble the unions' political muscle. Teachers' unions' political action committees are among the country's best financed; 90 percent or more of their contributions typically go to Democrats.
"It's a blatantly vicious and very strategic attack on this organization," charged Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the government relations director for the National Education Association.
Proposition 226 could put a dent in the union's national political plans. With 270,000 NEA members, California each year makes the single biggest state contribution to the national union's PAC. That money could be affected by any state restriction on payroll deductions for political contributions, Ms. Teasley said.
On Capitol Hill, paycheck protection has often been viewed as a "poison pill" in the debate over legislation to curtail campaign spending--an amendment guaranteed to kill Democratic support for any broader finance-overhaul measure. But Proposition 226 is reviving hopes of passing federal legislation dealing with the way unions collect money for their political agendas.
Rep. Harris W. Fawell, R-Ill., is waiting until after June 2 to call a House vote on his bill that would require private-sector unions to obtain written permission from members for such deductions--though not annually. The bill would affect those states where the payment of union fees cannot be made a condition of employment.
"California is a bellwether state--no doubt about it," said Paul Gunas, a staff member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, where the legislation originated.
Rep. Bob Schaffer, R-Colo., also plans to reintroduce a measure the House voted down 246-166 in March. The bill would require union members' written consent for payroll deductions made for "political activity," including lobbying on federal legislation.
Vol. 17, Issue 35, Page 12Published in Print: May 13, 1998, as Boosters of 'Payroll Protection' View Calif. as Pacesetter