Anti-union sentiment has always been strong in California, with today’s particular emphasis on resentment of public employee unions whose members’ pay and benefits sometimes equal or exceed the levels to which recession has reduced similar categories in private business.
Loathing of unions by some has reached the point where the same forces that have tried to eliminate organized labor as a political force two other times in the last 13 years are back again.
They are now circulating a new “paycheck protection” initiative designed to keep unions from using dues money paid through automatic payroll deductions for political contributions. Unions already must get permission from members when they first sign up in order to use such money politically. This measure would force them to seek authorization from members every year.
Almost certainly, supporters will get the 504,760 votes needed to put it on one of next year’s ballots well before their Oct. 24 deadline.
To provide a phony veneer of fairness, the newest version bans both unions and corporations from contributing directly to candidates or candidate-controlled campaign committees. And it requires corporations to get yearly employee signatures before using payroll deductions for politics.
Both those items are meaningless, though, because most union and corporate political spending lately has been through so-called “independent expenditure committees,” for which the U.S. Supreme Court has forbidden all spending limits. In short, corporations and unions can spend as much as they like on politics. But while most corporate spending comes from the firms themselves, and not their employees, the only money unions ever have comes from their members.
Which makes this version of “payroll protection” as one-sided and biased as its two predecessor initiatives, which failed in 1998 and 2005.
In short, as noted by Mr. Dooley, the fictitious Irish bartender immortalized more than a century ago by writer Finley Peter Dunne, “The more things change, they more they stay the same.” The only difference this time is that instead of aping ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2005 effort at targeting only public employee unions like those for teachers, firemen, police and prison guards, this measure tries to emasculate all unions. That makes this one a throwback to the 1998 Proposition 226.
Another difference this time is that unlike Schwarzenegger, current Gov. Jerry Brown will likely oppose the new measure once it hits the ballot.
Like those measures, this one will likely enjoy seemingly solid support at first – Proposition 226 had 71 percent support at first, but lost by a 53-47 percent margin, while Proposition 75 began with 57 percent poll support and lost badly.
In each case, a telling factor was that while “paycheck protection” would cut into – but never eliminate – labor’s political spending, it does nothing to curtail corporate political spending and influence.
Nothing in the new measure does more than place a very tiny fig leaf over that huge defect. Californians, like most Americans, want their political playing fields to be level, with both sides playing by the same rules.
The way to balance a paycheck protection measure would be to give shareholders the ability to cut corporate spending by a proportionate amount to the shares they hold in any company.
The argument can be made that since California law forbids any proposition from addressing more than one subject, no balanced and fair law accomplishing the laudable purpose of limiting both union and corporate political influence can ever be written.
But all it would take to get around that is some skilled legal writing. Call the measure something like “protection of personal capital” and offer protections to both union members and corporate shareholders, taking some of the decisions about political contributions out of the hands of union leaders and corporate management, where they are made today.
But an initiative like this is still pie in the sky, with no one making anything like a serious move in that direction. Meanwhile, another “paycheck protection” campaign looms.
The big question this time will be whether Californians’ love of a level playing field outweighs their heightened spite for unionized public employees, whose lot in life looks ever better as corporations make life harder and harder for their own employees via layoffs and diminished pensions and benefits.