Proponents, Opponents Exaggerate Prop. 32’s Effect

John Hrabe
Writer and Communications Strategist

Labor unions rarely agree with their archenemies, the proponents of paycheck protection.

Proposition 32, the “Stop Special Interest Money Now Act,” has only hardened those battle lines. The measure would substantially change the way political campaigns are financed in California. It would prohibit government contractors from contributing to candidates, ban unions and corporations from imposing payroll deductions for political activities and prohibit unions and corporations from making direct contributions to political candidates.

Proponents of the measure promise that the reform package “removes special interest money from politics” and will “end special interest power.” Opponents say that Prop. 32 is designed to limit unions’ political power, with negligible effects on businesses’ political speech. While the two sides don’t agree on the virtue of limiting unions’ speech, both agree that the measure will substantially decrease unions’ spending on political campaigns.

Gabriella Holt, the president of Citizens for California Reform and co-sponsor of Prop. 32, made that case in a recent San Francisco Chronicle opinion piece. “A vote for Prop. 32 removes the ability of special interests to buy off politicians and put their interests ahead of our children and our families,” she wrote.

Holt’s position is echoed, albeit for different reasons, by the state’s biggest labor unions.

“Prop. 32 would severely restrict union members in both the public and private sector from having a voice in our political process,” the California Labor Federation argues on its No on Prop. 32 website. “As a result, teachers, nurses, firefighters, police and other everyday heroes would be unable to speak out on issues that matter to us all–like cuts to our schools and colleges, police and fire response times, patient safety and workplace protections”

There’s a political incentive for both sides to exaggerate the measure’s effectiveness, but does the measure really live up to the hype?

Labor Unions California’s Most Powerful Special Interest Group

Labor unions, especially public employee unions, are the most influential special interest groups in Sacramento. Case in point, the California Teachers Association’s shameful defeat of Senate Bill 1530.

The bill, authored by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, would have made it easier for school districts to fire teachers that are accused of sexual, violent or drug-related offenses that involve children. But, this no-brainer bill couldn’t muster the requisite votes to pass out of the Assembly Education Committee. The only groups opposed to the bill were the state’s powerful labor unions, including the California Labor Federation, the California Federation of Teachers, the California Professional Firefighters, the California School Employees Association, the California Teachers Association, the Peace Officers Research Association and the United Teachers Los Angeles.

Why on earth would firefighters and police officers support greater legal protections for accused sex offenders and physically abusive teachers?  Prop. 32’s proponents say that’s exactly the point — union leaders don’t share the views of their rank and file members.

“There is a giant disconnect between union members and the union bosses that spend their money,” explained Adam Abrahms, a management-side labor lawyer who also serves as a vice-chairman of the California Republican Party. The state GOP has endorsed Prop. 32. “While roughly 40 percent of union members are Republicans, over 90 percent of labor money goes to Democrats.”

He added, “In the public sector, unions use forced dues to select their bosses and then sit at a one-sided table alongside their chosen politician to divvy up the public largess, without anyone speaking for the taxpayer.”

Proponents say Prop. 32 would correct that problem by allowing rank and file members to opt-out of political dues. Meanwhile, unions could continue to deduct mandatory dues for collective bargaining and other activities.

Unions Spend Billions on Political Activities

Union political spending isn’t chump change. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis from earlier this year, nationally unions supplied federal candidates with more than $1.1 billion in campaign contributions through their political action committees from 2005 to 2011. The Heritage Foundation’s Amy Payne noted that the PAC contributions are supplemented by another $3.3 billion for political activity from non-PAC accounts.

Opponents of Prop. 32 don’t dispute big labor’s big money politics.

“The two largest players, the California Teachers Association and the State Council of the Service Employees International Union, together account for $168 million of spending, well over half of labor’s total spending,” confirmed John Logan, a San Francisco State University professor who is opposed to the initiative . “Prop. 32’s restrictions against spending through payroll deductions — which is how unions raise money for political campaigns — would virtually eliminate this public interest spending.”

Logan’s claim — that Prop. 32 “would virtually eliminate this public interest spending” in California– assumes that unions would sit passively back and fail to adapt to the change in state campaign finance law. Unions in other states sure didn’t throw up their hands and accept defeat.

Washington’s Paycheck Protection: 60 Percent Increase in Union Spending

In 1992, the state of Washington passed one of the country’s first paycheck protection measures. Although labor unions blocked the measure for years with legal challenges, the law itself was largely ineffective.

Six years after Washington voters approved the law, then-Seattle Times columnist Michelle Malkin warned against overhyping Washington’s paycheck protection law. The unions, Malkin wrote, found workarounds that increased their campaign spending.

“No longer able to collect dues for political purposes without consent, but still able to compel general dues collection, the state teachers’ union simply redefined its ‘political’ program as a ‘Community Outreach Program’ and — voila! — $924,000 in political contributions began pouring into its coffers as of April 1993,” the conservative columnist wrote. “That’s 60 percent more in annual political funding than the union collected before I-134 passed. Some protection.”

A 2006 Heritage Foundation report by James Sherk concluded that hard money bans simply increase other soft money spending.

“Unions may well have found ways to circumvent the intent of most of the paycheck protection laws passed by the states, funding ways to spend their members’ dues on politics even when their members object,” the Heritage Foundation observed. “Circumstantial reports certainly suggest that union leaders simply ramp up their unconstrained soft money spending when their members have the option of opting out of hard money donations.”

Human Events’ Doug Stafford offered an even more discouraging point. When it’s all said and done, rank and file members that take advantage of their right to opt-out of mandatory political dues receive negligible refunds.

He wrote, “After all, even if the Supreme Court upholds this law [Washingtons state’s paycheck protection measure], employees will only receive small refunds of no more than $25 per year, because most of the union’s political spending is, by design, outside the reach of this campaign finance regulation.”

Californians could expect a similar result if Prop. 32 passes.

“Prop. 32 does not undermine union’s power to participate in politics,” acknowledged Abrahms.  “It only limits their ability to forcible and surreptitiously take money out of their members’ checks.”

Paycheck Protection Measures Ineffective?

Bradley A. Smith, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and one of the nation’s foremost experts on campaign finance law, has questioned the effectiveness of state paycheck protection measures.

“In reality, however, these paycheck protection laws have not lived up to their advertising or returned a material amount of funds to employees,” he wrote in a 2007 Detroit News opinion piece. “By embracing the campaign finance regulatory approach, its promoters are trying to use the tools of the political left — that is, government regulations — to solve a problem caused by government.”

Smith, who now serves as the chairman of Center for Competitive Politics, can hardly be described as a union shill. He believes “the real problem is that forcing employees to pay any dues — for politics or anything else — is fundamentally unjust.”

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