OAKLAND, Calif. -- As a dues-paying Teamster driver, Dion Smith doesn't always endorse his union's political stance. But he'll vote against a proposal that would force unions to get written permission from individual members before using their dues money for political activities.
"It's an attempt by corporations to divide union members and weaken us even further," Smith said while unloading a stack of cardboard cartons from his United Parcel Service van.
His comments reflect the apparent success of labor's $15 million campaign to turn voters in Tuesday's California primary against the Republican initiative, which is designed to drastically undermine organized labor's political influence.
Until recently, public opinion surveys showed the initiative winning by better than a 2-to-1 margin. But the latest polling shows support for the measure slipping below 50 percent in the wake of labor's heavy counter-offensive, which outspent proponents by better than 4-to-1.
"When we see a trend like this," said pollster Mark DiCamillo of the Field organization, "usually the case is that the momentum continues through Election Day."
Just as California's approval of Proposition 13 sparked a national anti-tax revolt 20 years ago, Republicans view Tuesday's vote as pivotal in their wider efforts to slash labor's ability to spend on liberal causes and Democratic candidates.
Republican leaders in Congress have postponed action on a federal "paycheck protection" measure until after Californians vote. They plan to rush it to the House floor if the initiative is approved.
But with President Clinton promising a veto, any meaningful action would have to take place at the state level. Currently, legislation or initiatives that would make it more difficult for unions to spend dues for politics are under consideration in at least 10 states.
A similar effort died in the Maryland General Assembly this year.
"A win in California speeds everything up by two years," said Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, a leader of the national anti-union movement and a close ally of Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
"A loss in California makes the others tougher."
A defeat for the California initiative would also deal a blow to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's presidential aspirations. Wilson, co-chair of the anti-union drive, has invested more than $1.2 million from his campaign organization in the effort.
"It would make him one of the top-tier presidential candidates if it passes," said Norquist.
At the same time, a defeat of the California initiative would reinforce the claims of critics who say that big labor is too powerful.
In fact, labor is not nearly as big or as potent as it once was, because of declining membership. Fewer than 1 in 6 U.S. workers belong to a union today.
Labor tied to Democrats
As union leaders are fond of pointing out, business interests now outspend them in politics by margins of up to 9 to 1. It has been decades since union families were a Democratic bloc vote; now, it isn't uncommon for 40 percent or more of the union vote to go to GOP or independent candidates.
And yet, in an apparent paradox, as labor and the Democrats have declined, their importance to one another has grown. In the 1996 election, organized labor, the party's largest single donor, gave Democrats almost $120 million, including nearly half of all the money that House Democratic candidates received from political action committees.
GOP seeking payback
The current wave of Republican labor-bashing is, for the most part, payback for labor's reawakening under AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney. In 1996, Sweeney directed a failed $35 million try to return control of Congress to the Democrats.
This year, under Sweeney, a member of the Democratic National Committee, the labor federation is spending $13 million to fight the "paycheck protection" threat.
"We see this as the first battle in what could be a long war against the friends of Newt Gingrich, who have decided that they are going to try to take unions and working families out of the political debate," said Steven Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO political director.
Fairness vs. expediency
Proponents of "paycheck protection" argue that giving the rank-and-file the freedom to decide whether their dues can be spent on politics is only fair.
"The question answers itself: Should anyone have money taken out of their paycheck without their permission?" said Mark Bucher, a 39-year-old businessman who is one of the co-authors of the California initiative, formally known as Proposition 226.
But conservative activists also make no secret of their desire to strip labor of its resources for lobbying and campaigns.
If "paycheck protection" is adopted, "labor unions won't be at the forefront of gun control and abortion and anti-defense policies," said Norquist, whose group has channeled $500,000 into the California fight.
Four states have already adopted laws this decade that bar unions from spending dues money on politics without their members' permission. When the Washington state law took effect several years ago, the money available for union political activities shrank by nearly 80 percent.
Since then, however, unions in that state have managed to fully replenish their political accounts by relabeling them as "community outreach" funds.
Wording draws criticism
In an effort to prevent unions from evading the intent of the California initiative, its authors worded their proposition so broadly that it raised questions about whether other payroll deductions, including those for charities, might be subject to the proposed restrictions.
That has sparked opposition to the measure from local affiliates of the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association.
Under pressure from Wilson, the United Way backed away from its earlier opposition.
The high-stakes ballot fight, conducted through TV and radio ads, direct mail and telephone banks, has prompted each side to accuse the other of deception.
In their commercials, and in communicating with the rank-and-file, unions are avoiding the issue of whether political dues should be voluntary. Instead, they are talking about what might happen if Proposition 226 passes and attacking those who are behind it.
During a recent visit to a welfare office across the street from the Los Angeles Coliseum, a top official of the state's largest union, the Service Employees International Union, tried to make California's governor the villain.
"Anything Pete Wilson's for, that's not good for you," Eliseo Medina, the union's international executive vice president, told workers, who seemed only dimly aware of the ballot proposal.
Labor's TV ads warn that the measure could "weaken patient protections against HMOs, privatize education and export American jobs."
Union officials justify those claims by saying those would be the consequences if labor lost its freedom to use dues money for politics and, with it, the ability to check Republican legislators and their business allies.
Pub Date: 5/31/98