Unions' efforts weaken support for plan to limit political spending California initiative has strong backing from Republican Party

May 31, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

OAKLAND, Calif. -- As a dues-paying Teamster driver, Dion Smith doesn't always endorse his union's political stance. But he'll vote against a proposal that would force unions to get written permission from individual members before using their dues money for political activities.

"It's an attempt by corporations to divide union members and weaken us even further," Smith said while unloading a stack of cardboard cartons from his United Parcel Service van.

His comments reflect the apparent success of labor's $15 million campaign to turn voters in Tuesday's California primary against the Republican initiative, which is designed to drastically undermine organized labor's political influence.

Until recently, public opinion surveys showed the initiative winning by better than a 2-to-1 margin. But the latest polling shows support for the measure slipping below 50 percent in the wake of labor's heavy counter-offensive, which outspent proponents by better than 4-to-1.

"When we see a trend like this," said pollster Mark DiCamillo of the Field organization, "usually the case is that the momentum continues through Election Day."

Just as California's approval of Proposition 13 sparked a national anti-tax revolt 20 years ago, Republicans view Tuesday's vote as pivotal in their wider efforts to slash labor's ability to spend on liberal causes and Democratic candidates.

Republican leaders in Congress have postponed action on a federal "paycheck protection" measure until after Californians vote. They plan to rush it to the House floor if the initiative is approved.

But with President Clinton promising a veto, any meaningful action would have to take place at the state level. Currently, legislation or initiatives that would make it more difficult for unions to spend dues for politics are under consideration in at least 10 states.

A similar effort died in the Maryland General Assembly this year.

High-stakes fight

"A win in California speeds everything up by two years," said Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, a leader of the national anti-union movement and a close ally of Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"A loss in California makes the others tougher."

A defeat for the California initiative would also deal a blow to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's presidential aspirations. Wilson, co-chair of the anti-union drive, has invested more than $1.2 million from his campaign organization in the effort.

"It would make him one of the top-tier presidential candidates if it passes," said Norquist.

At the same time, a defeat of the California initiative would reinforce the claims of critics who say that big labor is too powerful.

In fact, labor is not nearly as big or as potent as it once was, because of declining membership. Fewer than 1 in 6 U.S. workers belong to a union today.

Labor tied to Democrats

As union leaders are fond of pointing out, business interests now outspend them in politics by margins of up to 9 to 1. It has been decades since union families were a Democratic bloc vote; now, it isn't uncommon for 40 percent or more of the union vote to go to GOP or independent candidates.

And yet, in an apparent paradox, as labor and the Democrats have declined, their importance to one another has grown. In the 1996 election, organized labor, the party's largest single donor, gave Democrats almost $120 million, including nearly half of all the money that House Democratic candidates received from political action committees.

GOP seeking payback

The current wave of Republican labor-bashing is, for the most part, payback for labor's reawakening under AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney. In 1996, Sweeney directed a failed $35 million try to return control of Congress to the Democrats.

This year, under Sweeney, a member of the Democratic National Committee, the labor federation is spending $13 million to fight the "paycheck protection" threat.

"We see this as the first battle in what could be a long war against the friends of Newt Gingrich, who have decided that they are going to try to take unions and working families out of the political debate," said Steven Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO political director.

Fairness vs. expediency

Proponents of "paycheck protection" argue that giving the rank-and-file the freedom to decide whether their dues can be spent on politics is only fair.

"The question answers itself: Should anyone have money taken out of their paycheck without their permission?" said Mark Bucher, a 39-year-old businessman who is one of the co-authors of the California initiative, formally known as Proposition 226.

But conservative activists also make no secret of their desire to strip labor of its resources for lobbying and campaigns.

If "paycheck protection" is adopted, "labor unions won't be at the forefront of gun control and abortion and anti-defense policies," said Norquist, whose group has channeled $500,000 into the California fight.

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