Question: On June 2 voters in California will vote on Proposition 226, an initiative that requires unions to obtain written authorization from union members before using their dues for political purposes. Should citizens vote yes?
Josette Shiner: Nationally, according to a 1997 Washington Post-ABC news poll, 82 percent of Americans believe that "unions need to get permission from individual union members to use dues for political purposes."
These citizens confirm what Ronald Reagan used to say: "Americans are usually a heck of a lot smarter than you think." The situation, as it exists now, is campaign financing abuse at its worst. More than half of all union members don't identify themselves as Democrats, but up to 99 percent of union political contributions go to Democrats. And we are not talking about small sums of money.
The law says that union members don't have to contribute to a political fund, but the unions automatically deduct this money from individual member's paychecks without permission. Proposition 226, accurately labeled The Paycheck Protection Act, will require that labor unions obtain members "annual written authorization" to use these dues for political purposes. The initiative would both strengthen union bosses' accountability and help decrease the chance for corrupt, hyper-partisan political spending.
President Clinton, whose political career has been sustained by union money, fooled no one when he opposed the proposition on grounds that it oppresses working people. "What this amendment seeks to do is to basically muffle the ability of the collective voices of working people to be heard," he warned. Why is the president's rhetoric so overwrought and unreasonable? Look at the recent poll numbers: Californians, by a margin of almost 4-to-1, favor Proposition 226. And plans are under way in six more states for similar initiatives. And most worrisome of all: Washington state passed a paycheck protection law that has caused an 80 percent drop in political dues to the state chapter of the NEA.
In the end, the argument for Proposition 226 is quite simple. It abides by the Constitution. It shifts power from union bosses to union members. And, not least, it will end the shady campaign finance deal union bosses have sought so desperately to preserve.
Bonnie Erbe: Why, to answer my colleague's rhetorical question, is the president's verbiage so "overwrought and unreasonable"? Because he's finally smartened up and is copying the political antics of the right wing of the Republican Party. I disagree with her premise (that his rhetoric is overwrought or unreasonable), but I do know that political hyperbole has been the province not of the politically extreme. And since the American political extreme Left died with Marxism, the extreme right has an exclusive claim on "overwrought and unreasonable."
Now, as to the question whether Californians should vote for the ill-named Paycheck Protection Law, the answer is a qualified "Yes." I say qualified, due to one of its more important features that my colleague (inadvertently, I'm sure) neglected to note. In addition to the union dues provisions, the referendum also "prohibits employers from making automatic deductions from an employee's pay for political contributions without annual, written authorization from the employee." This is a good start, but on principles of evenhandedness it needs to go much further.
Any mildly astute observer of today's political landscape recognizes that Paycheck Protection laws are nothing more than Republican attempts to strip the Democratic Party of union financial support.
In the 1996 elections the Democratic Party received $35 million in direct donations from unions. But the Republicans received well over $100 million from corporations - a figure that obviously dwarfs the Democrats' take from unions. If union members deserve to be polled on how their dues are spent, then similarly, corporate employees (who help earn corporate profits) and corporate stockholders (who take risks to capitalize a company) should similarly be polled before contributions to the Republican party are approved.
In theory, the Paycheck Protection Law would be sound. In execution, it's highly partisan. Once those partisan flaws are corrected, voters should resoundingly support it. Until that time, however, Californians should vote no.