If the first two times you don’t succeed, fail. Fail again.
One would think that the devastating defeats of so-called
"paycheck protection" initiatives — Propositions 226 (in 1998) and Prop 75 (in
2005) — would have ended the fantasy that California voters are going to back
initiatives to limit how labor unions use their dues.
But I have in my hands an Oct. 7 letter from Robert W.
Loewen, president of the Lincoln Club of Orange County, declaring to supporters
of those defeated measures that his organization intends to launch another
paycheck protection initiative in 2010 and in "2012 if necessary."
The letter’s logic – and I use that word generously – is
that there are four main reasons why the next 2-3 years are the "perfect time"
to pass paycheck protection. 1. The state of the economy (the letter offers no
explanation of the connection between paycheck protection and the economy). 2.
"Widespread populist outrage over the expansion of government, much of which is
already being blamed on the unions." 3. A recent Supreme Court decision
upholding Idaho’s ability to ban the government from automatically collecting
dues for government unions.
And then, the fourth reason, my personal favorite: "the rise
of conservative, internet-based movements such as the Tea Parties." Yep, the
same Tea Parties that have defined the Republican Party as a mainstream,
solutions-oriented organization and have restored the GOP to a position of such
political strength, especially in California.
The political strategy is to keep fighting the unions,
probably forever, or at least as long as there’s money to pay the political
consultants and vendors who work on this endless campaign. The letter suggests
that the first initiative in 2010 will be a sort of a first run that will
"force the unions to spend tens of millions to fight it." Then, when 2012 comes
along, "the unions will be in a much weaker position and we will have an
organized finance committee and coalition."
Boiled down, the strategy amounts to this: let’s start a war
of financial attrition with public employee unions.
Good luck with that.
The folks who devised the strategy really do need to see the
new film, "Men Who Stare at Goats," about military psychics who believe they
can kill a goat simply by staring at it long enough.
Here are a few things for supporters of this paycheck
protection initiative to ponder before they go forward. California is a blue
state. Opponents of paycheck
protection have some pretty powerful arguments against this – including the
fact that California voters have turned down similar initiatives twice in a
decade. There also are more than a few voters who blame the state’s problems
not only on the power of spending lobbies (which include the public employee
unions but are certainly not limited to them) but also on corporations and the
rich. The corporate backers of this measure may find that they make pretty easy
targets, in part because of the "state of the economy" and in part because they
are less sympathetic than the inevitable parade of teachers and firefighters
that will attack the measure. The letter indicates that Doug Manchester, the
hotel magnate who has been the target of a boycott by gay rights folks because
of his support for Prop 8, has donated $100,000 to launch the initiative. That
news alone will help unions build a larger coalition against paycheck.
The letter also gets history wrong. Loewen writes that Props
226 and 75 came "within 6 points of winning." Which would be true if elections
were won with 49 percent of the vote. They each lost by 7 points, according to
official returns from the Secretary of State’s office. A small matter, this one
percentage point, but the letter goes on to say that the two initiatives
"nearly bankrupted the unions." Yes, the California Teachers Assn. borrowed
against one of its buildings and did a big dues assessment to fight the
previous initiative. But the initiative didn’t bankrupt the CTA or any other
union by any measure, as anyone who has checked a campaign finance report for
the past four years could see.
The outsized power of public employee unions is a serious
problem, both as a matter of accountability and of spending discipline. But
spending time and money on a failed strategy makes no sense. There are plenty
of possible reforms- of the legislature, initiative process, campaign finance
and local government – that could reduce the influence of unions and other
interests. But conservatives, instead of investing in such reform efforts, seem
more interested in populist half-ideas that are going nowhere, such as the
part-time legislature and this.
The real folly of paycheck protection becomes obvious when
you answer this question: what happens if the "paycheck protection" side wins?
Yes, the unions might have a little less money, but they’d still have plenty of
money – and their members would have all kinds of legal protections, from
collective bargaining to tenure. But, according to Loewen’s letter, paycheck
protection is worth betting the farm. "In our opinion, there is no more
important issue in the state than this," says the letter. "Everything else is
simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."
Stop right there. Putting paycheck protection in the same
sentence as the Titanic is very unfair – to the Titanic. The big boat only sank