WASHINGTON -- Last week, after California voters rejected an initiative that would have required unions to get permission annually from their members to take money from their paychecks to spend on political activity, AFL-CIO President John. J. Sweeney claimed that the clear message was that "pounding working families is a losing proposition." Maybe so, but the proponents say they will keep trying.
The initiative, called "paycheck protection" by its advocates but derided as "paycheck deception" by organized labor, had led in early polls by as much as 72 percent to 21. But a television advertising and direct-mail blitz by labor costing $17 million or more eventually turned voter sentiment around, and the initiative was rejected by 54 percent to 46 percent.
The proponents' argument that it was simple fairness to give union members a say about how their money was being spent had great appeal at first. But labor began nibbling away by claiming the ballot measure was being masterminded and bankrolled by California outsiders hostile to unions and by charging that if enacted, it would jeopardize everything from health care and charitable giving to police safety and personal privacy.
The arguments were a bit far-fetched, and Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, a chief supporter of Proposition 226, attacked them as part of a "big lie" technique. The history of initiatives in California is that if voters are confused or uncertain about the impact of the issue involved, they are most likely to vote against it.
Big labor poured so much money into the fight because it was being touted by Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, as the keystone of a national campaign in the states and in Congress to require the same union-member approval before political money could be spent.
Mr. Norquist and his group had provided $441,000 for the petition drive that got the initiative on the ballot in California. The labor ads named him and Patrick Rooney, a conservative Indianapolis insurance executive, as the outsiders bent on crippling the political clout of organized labor. It was an argument that greatly energized union members to turn out at the ballot box.
Mr. Sweeney called Prop 226 "the most serious effort to silence America's working families in recent history," and after it was defeated, he said, "I feel safe in saying that Grover Norquist's fantasy of a national sweep on the artfully named and deceptive issue of 'paycheck deception' will no longer start with the most populous state in the nation."
That seems to be true enough, but the California result is by no means the end of the story. Four states -- Washington, Michigan, Idaho and Wyoming -- already have some form of limit on union political spending. Mr. Norquist and his organization are pressing ahead with restrictive legislation in at least 26 states and petitioning for ballot position in three more -- Oregon, Nevada and Colorado.
The California result, Mr. Norquist says, was "a Pyrrhic victory for the unions" in which "they used false claims of cops being killed and charities losing donations to scare the voters." Another reason the initiative failed, a spokesman for Mr. Norquist's group acknowledges, is that big business in California had no stomach for taking on labor in an era of economic well-being and labor peace. He says a labor threat to file a counter-petition that would have required corporations to get stockholder permission for their political spending "virtually blackmailed them to stay out" of the fight.
In any event, while labor may have dealt a serious blow to the effort of its political foes to dry up its financial resources in California, the battle is far from over. Corporate giving through well-heeled executives already overwhelmingly outspends labor in support of or opposition to political candidates and causes. Labor political strategists know they must beat back this anti-union scheme everywhere, or fall still farther behind in the money game so central to effective playing in high-stakes politics today.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 6/10/98