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Will California Become a Right-to-Give State?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

How the Golden State may unshackle workers from their union overlords.

“To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “is sinful and tyrannical.”

If the sage of Monticello is correct, then California’s powerful labor unions—along with the state government that both empowers and is empowered by them—are sinful and tyrannical indeed. In the Golden State, as, alas, in several other states, unions automatically deduct employee wages and funnel them to political campaigns—without the consent of the employee.

Although it’s hard to imagine California ever becoming a right-to-work state—given labor’s tremendous clout in Sacramento—a dedicated alliance of good government reformers, fiscal conservatives, and just plain sensible folks are working to make it a right-to-give state.

Proposition 32, entitled “Political Contributions by Payroll Deduction,” is a “paycheck protection” ballot initiative that, if successful this November, could—with apologies to Vice President Joe Biden—unshackle workers from their union overlords. In so doing, the measure could fundamentally reshape the relationship between labor and government in the Golden State.

“Right now, we have an alliance of big government, big business, and big labor that makes decisions for its own benefit,” explains Gary Felien, an official spokesman for the Yes on 32 campaign. “It’s a giant political machine financed by big money. Much of that money is collected without the approval of the contributor.”

Prop 32 would prohibit both corporations and unions from automatically deducting their employees’ salaries to make political contributions.

Prop 32, however, would do three things. First, it would bar contributions by both corporations and unions to state and local candidates. Second, it would proscribe donations by companies that contract with the government to the politicians who sign those contracts. Third, and most importantly, it would prohibit both corporations and unions from automatically deducting their employees’ salaries to make political contributions.

“The main point of Prop 32 is that every contribution needs to be a voluntary decision on behalf of the contributor,” says Felien, who is also a councilmember in the City of Oceanside, 25 miles from San Diego.

It’s a noble thought, but unfortunately, it’s one that California voters haven’t quite cottoned on to in the past. Propositions 226 and 75, in 1998 and 2005, respectively, came up just short after labor depleted its coffers and poured tens of millions of dollars into opposing the measures.

Following those setbacks, Felien says, 48 percent of respondents said corporations enjoyed too much power, while 45 percent felt unions had too much control.

So this time around, paycheck protection advocates refused to be caught flat-footed. Instead, Felien says they deemed it critical “to address the public concern related to corporations, so the provisions in this one apply equally to labor unions and corporations.”

Prop 32 supporters also sought help from unfamiliar places. In a potent recent ad featuring Gloria Romero, the former Democratic Majority Leader of the California State Senate, and quoting Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Romero vigorously promotes the measure, saying “if you want to take back California from the special interests, if you want to get big money out of California politics, if you want elected officials to answer to the people again, whatever your political persuasion, join me in voting ‘yes’ on Proposition 32.”

Opponents of the measure point out that Romero has mixed it up with the unions on various occasions, and Villaraigosa has asked that his quotation be taken down. Still, the Yes on 32 campaign has gone far outside its box to secure support from unusual sources.

Other critics have challenged the initiative head-on, while the unions are spending like drunken sailors to defeat it.

One professor at San Francisco State labeled the measure “Citizens United on steroids,” writing in The Hill that its passage would inevitably “slash spending in support of funding for public education, health and safety” and “weaken labor standards, targeting wage and hour laws, paid sick leave, health and safety provisions, and other essential protections.”

Felien, though, puts this kind of thinking in context. “The contributions in Citizens United are voluntary,” he says, “but corporations or unions taking money for their own benefits is wrong.” Indeed, Prop 32 aims to reduce the influence of corporate dollars on politics.

Others opponents of the measure have observed, however, that corporations rarely siphon funds from their employees’ paychecks to political causes, and we should instead ensure companies obtain shareholder permission before contributing to political causes. Felien, for his part, isn’t entirely opposed to such an idea, but he notes that “it’s much easier to spend a five-dollar commission to sell your stock. It’s much harder, and not at all comparable, to quit your job,” as union workers would have to do to avoid mandatory contributions.

Prop 32 aims to reduce the influence of corporate dollars on politics.

In addition to ensuring worker freedom, Prop 32 stands to remake the dysfunctional state of labor-politician relations in California. “When union members are given a voluntary, affirmative choice to make about whether the union is acting in their interest,” Felien notes, “contributions drop off by about 50 to 90 percent. I believe the Utah teachers union [contributions] fell off by 90 percent, and a similar thing happened in Wisconsin and Washington state.” Indeed, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s reforms have dramatically altered the balance of labor power in Madison.

Back in California, the Yes on 32 folks have been cautiously optimistic. Several polls taken by the California Business Roundtable show support hovering around the 60 percent level generally thought of as key at this stage for passage in November, notwithstanding the union barrage certain to intensify.

“It’s always an uphill fight when you’re battling against entrenched, well-financed interests who are trying to protect their cookie jar,” Felien acknowledges. “We just hope Californians begin to realize that some of our problems are caused by some of the unaccountable special interests that control our lives in Sacramento.”

With shrewd strategizing, broad support, and a little bit of luck, the indomitable Yes on 32 supporters are poised to strike a blow in November for liberty and fiscal sanity. Somewhere, Thomas Jefferson is surely smiling.

Michael M. Rosen, a contributor to THE AMERICAN, is an attorney in San Diego. Contact him at 

FURTHER READING: Rosen also writes “Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee, PC?,” “The New Textualists’ Finest Hour?,” and “Love, Happiness, and Other Things Money Can’t (Or At Least Shouldn’t) Buy.” Ilya Shapiro discusses “Why Citizens United Has Nothing to Do with What Ails American Politics.” Howard Darmstadter asks “Who Should Know about Your Political Contributions?” Michael Barone reports “Public Unions Force Taxpayers to Fund Democrats.

Image by Darren Wamboldt / Bergman Group

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