California’s Proposition 75: Paycheck Protection

Union members deserve choice

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

Proposition 75 has become a political lightning rod for daring to assert that unions should have to ask permission before taking their members’ money for political purposes. The idea behind Prop. 75 is a simple one: people should not be forced to contribute to political causes with which they disagree.

While union opponents like to wax philosophic about “union democracy” and hysterically claim that Prop. 75 will prevent union interests from having a say in the political process, the initiative is essentially about individual choice.

The powerful California Teachers Association unwittingly made the case from Prop. 75 when it imposed an additional $60 fee on each of its 330,000 members, and the California Faculty Association imposed a 10-percent mandatory dues increase, specifically to fight Gov. Schwarzenegger’s “reform” agenda (Propositions 74, 75, 76, and 77), especially Prop. 75. Only after a lawsuit was filed did the unions agree to refund the $60 assessment to nonunion teachers. No wonder polls show as many as half of union members support the paycheck protection measure.

Union opponents have claimed that Prop. 75 would “silence the voices” of government employee union members. Prop. 75 would not restrict any existing union activity. The only requirement it would impose is that unions must get annual written permission from their members before using their dues for political purposes. They are still free to engage in lobbying, issue advocacy, and candidate support activities with whatever money they raise.

The unions have noted that there is already an “opt-out” option available to members who do not wish a portion of their dues to be used for political purposes. True enough, but why should the onus be on the individual union member to fill out the paperwork and ensure that his wishes are complied with? The opt-out option, in effect, imposes a cost (in time and effort) on the member simply to keep his own money from being used to support causes he does not agree with. This burden should properly be placed on the unions, not the employees. Unions have the right to raise money for political advocacy, but they should bear the cost of these fundraising efforts, rather than shifting them to unsympathetic members.

While both sides assume that the proposition will hit the public employees’ unions in the pocketbook, this is far from a certain result. Six other states—Idaho, Michigan, Ohio, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming—have passed similar union-dues measures, with mixed results. In Utah, the measure did, in fact, seem to hurt unions’ ability to raise money. In Washington, loopholes and court decisions favorable to the unions have allowed unions to raise even more money than before. And in Michigan, the measure does not seem to have had any real effect.

Prop. 75 opponents additionally argue that, under the measure, unions will be disadvantaged, compared to business interests. The union-business duality is false, however. First, many businesses do not contribute to political campaigns at all. (On the other hand, try to find a labor union that is not politically active.) Those that do contribute do so to influence policy. To influence policy, you have to influence those in power, who are predominantly Democrats in California. Certainly, there are a lot of corporate Republican contributors, but it is to ignore that there are also a substantial number of corporate Democrat contributors and assume that the giving is one-sided is naive.

The true dichotomy is between unions and taxpayers. The job of the unions is to obtain for their members the highest wages and benefits and the best working conditions (i.e., more money for less work)-costs that must be paid entirely by taxpayers, both in higher taxes and poorer-quality services. Consider, for example, former Gov. Gray Davis’s quid pro quo deal with the prison guards’ union. The guards got a nearly 34 percent pay increase in the midst of a $24 billion state budget deficit. Davis got millions of dollars in campaign contributions. Taxpayers got the bill. Or remember SB 400, passed in 1999, which not only increased government employee pension benefits up to 50 percent, but also eliminated a second, less-costly benefits tier installed in 1991 to control pension costs-and made the benefit increases retroactive.

At its heart, Prop. 75 is about choice. It is about the fundamental choice of union members to contribute their hard-earned money to the political campaigns they support-or none at all. If they trust the union leadership to support political causes with which they agree, they should be more than willing to sign a simple form to reflect their consent, just as taxpayers have the option to contribute to various funds and causes on the state tax form. Those who do not support the same causes as the union bosses, however, should not have the burden of wasting their time and energy cutting through red tape to keep the union from spending their dues on campaigns contrary to their own beliefs and interests.

Adam B. Summers is a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank.