Anti-union Proposition 226 stays ahead in trend-setting California

May 18, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

SACRAMENTO -- The man in the labor-sponsored television ad peers through a large magnifying glass at Proposition 226, called by its backers the "paycheck protection" initiative on California's June 2 ballot.

"We've seen it before," a narrator says. "Ballot measures that aren't what they appear to be. And when you take a closer look at Prop 226, you'll see that a foreign lobbyist, multinational corporations and an out-of-state insurance tycoon are behind it."

The ad shows photographs of Grover Norquist, a registered lobbyist whose Americans for Tax Reform contributed $441,000 to put the initiative on the ballot, and Indianapolis insurance executive J. Patrick Rooney, who kicked in $49,000. But it takes more than a magnifying glass to see the claims organized labor is making about what Prop 226 would do.

The initiative states that all employers and labor unions must annually obtain written permission from their employees or members to withhold wages or dues to be used for political purposes. The three Orange County authors -- fronts for Mr. Norquist and Mr. Rooney, organized labor contends -- say fairness dictates that workers who disagree with how their money is spent should be told they don't have to give if they don't want to.

But the foes of Prop 226 argue that as a practical matter it is lopsided against labor, because the same requirement would not be applied against corporations that use stockholders' money for political purposes without permission.

Beyond labeling the initiative anti-labor, opposition ads are warning California voters that it could imperil their health care, their privacy and even their right to give to charitable organizations. Mr. Norquist and Mr. Rooney, one ad warns, are "here to push the 226 agenda: Weaken patient protections against HMOs, privatize education and export American jobs."

The ads' warning is based on an analysis by the state's legislative counsel that says 226 "would apply to employee payroll deductions made for donations to a nonprofit organization that the employer knows or has reason to know uses all or a portion of the donations" to support or oppose a candidate or ballot measure. One United Way official put out a "legislative alert" to members to this effect, but the United Way leadership later said it did not represent its view.

Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, a leading backer of 226, calls this interpretation "totally bogus . . . If you read the initiative," he says, "it clearly deals only with political contributions and with involuntary ones at that." The opponents of 226, he says, "recognize their only chance to beat it is to mislead people into believing it's something utterly false."

In any event, labor's television barrage appears to have cut sharply into Prop 226's support, which has dropped in the Field Poll from 72 percent approval last November to 55 percent, with 34 percent opposed. One of the local sponsors, Jim Righeimer, predicts that television ads backing 226, just beginning, will protect that still considerable lead.

Although Mr. Righeimer insists the campaign is home-grown, it does dovetail with similar efforts in 26 other states. The AFL-CIO says attempts to write what it calls "paycheck deception" legislation have already failed in 13 of them. Republican leaders in Congress also have been pushing the idea of requiring written permission from union members for use of their money for political purposes.

"By silencing the voice of working families in the political process," the labor federation says, "right-wing front groups and big business interests" seek to "advance their agenda to privatize social security, expand corporate control of our nation's health care system and hold down living standards."

Because California in the past has been a national trend-setter, labor is making its biggest effort against such proposals here. Proponents of 226 say organized labor is putting as much as $13 million into the drive to beat it. The AFL-CIO counters that supporters of this and similar measures around the nation will be spending $22 million.

The labor strategy of fighting 226 on grounds that it would jeopardize the interests of all voters, not just union members, suggests that labor is fearful right now that Californians will buy the argument that it's only fair that workers have the right to say no on political use of their money. If so, California may well send the rest of the country an anti-union message on June 2 that could catch on elsewhere.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 5/18/98

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