Trade unions are a major presence in California politics. Unions spend income from membership dues to support political candidates and ballot measures. There is strong opposition to the practice in the business community and the Republican Party, but so far attempts to restrict the practice have not succeeded. The latest challenge to the practice is an initiative measure on the November 2005 special election ballot. The measure targets California public employee unions. If passed, the measure would curtail their ability to use membership dues for political purposes.
Those who support the political spending of union dues say it is a necessary counterweight to the strong influence of corporations and business groups in politics. Supporters contend that political spending by corporations far exceeds that of unions. Moreover, supporters say, it is unfair to hamper union political spending only. Limitations, if imposed, should protect shareholders in corporations as well as union members from unwanted political spending.
Those who oppose the political spending of union dues say that it should be permitted only when employees expressly consent to the use of their union dues and fees for political purposes. Otherwise, opponents say, employees are put in the position of funding political causes with which they may disagree. Opponents reject the assumption that union leaders and rank-and-file members share the same political views, and note that in states where union members are explicitly given the choice to decline political spending, many in fact do so.
A landmark 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Communications Workers v. Beck, established that union members cannot be forced to pay for activities unrelated to collective bargaining. In February 2005 Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill summarized current federal and state case law this way:
Unions may use dues funds for various political purposes, including supporting and opposing political candidates and issues. Pursuant to federal and state court decisions, mandatory fair share fees charged to non-union members cannot be used for political purposes. Unions must annually report to all members and bargaining unit participants what portion of their expenditures was for operations and what portion was for political purposes.* *February 11, 2005 letter to Attorney Bill Lockyer regarding the November 2005 union dues initiative.
The Legislative Analyst noted further that "Because fair share fees cannot be used for political purposes, these fees typically are a few dollars less each month than union dues for full membership."
California voters have considered the issue of union dues spending for political purposes before. In the 1998 primary election voters turned down Proposition 226, called the "paycheck protection initiative" by its supporters. Proposition 226 would have required all unions, not just public employee unions, to obtain union members' written consent annually before using union dues for political purposes. The vote on Proposition 226 was 53.32% no and 46.68% yes. Almost $30 million was spent on the Proposition 226 campaign, $23,574,954 by opponents and $6,240,157 by supporters according to the California Secretary of State's Cal-Access office.
California was the first state in the country to establish teacher tenure law in 1921. Current state law mandates that teachers gain tenure in California after completing a two-year probationary period during which time they can be dismissed for poor performance by their school district. (see Education Code, Sec. 4929.20-44929.29). Once tenured, teachers gain a degree of security in their positions and can be dismissed only for just cause. State law dictates conditions under which a tenured teacher can be dismissed including unsatisfactory performance or misconduct. Low student achievement is not included as a condition for dismissal, a fact that critics have pointed to as a cause for continued low student performance in the state. In addition to dismissal conditions, state law specifies that a governing board must give written notice to an employee before initiating dismissal proceedings for unsatisfactory performance. The notice, including "specific instances of behavior" must be given to the employee three months prior to filing the charge. The law also mandates that the employee may request an administrative hearing within 30 days of receiving the notice. +
Education activists believe that tenure is an important safeguard that protects teachers from unfair disciplinary actions. Proponents of the current system also say that it is the only way to insure there will be enough teachers to instruct the more than 6 million students currently enrolled in California public schools. Critics of the current tenure system believe that the law has allowed bad or unfit teachers to hide behind tenure, adversely affecting students' performance. They point to recent studies that find that California currently ranks near the bottom of educational attainment.
The Public Employees' Right to Approve Use of Union Dues for Political Campaign Purposes Act would require California public employee unions to get, annually, the written consent of members and bargaining unit participants to use dues and fees for political purposes. The exact wording of the consent form is specified. The measure would further require unions to retain copies of the forms and keep detailed records of funds received and political expenditures made.
The legal presumption in California is that the political spending of union dues is permitted unless union members explicitly opt out. Under the proposed initiative, union members would have to opt in. The legal presumption would be that political spending is not permitted unless specifically authorized by union members.
Under Proposition 75, union dues could still be spent for issue advocacy without the permission of union members, as long as the spending was not directed toward a specific result in an election. For example, spending on ads critical of the governor's position on education finance would be permitted without member consent, but not spending on a campaign committee to defeat the governor in the next election. The line between issue advocacy spending and political campaign spending is not always clear, and some observers see the former as a big loophole in Proposition 75. Other observers note that Proposition 75 will curtail overt political spending, and supporters of the measure assert that putting political spending under heightened scrutiny is a good thing in any case.
The lead proponent of the measure is Lewis K. Uhler, founder and president of the National Tax Limitation Committee. Mr. Uhler is a well-known anti-tax activist and a prominent figure in conservative Republican Party circles. The Coalition for Employee Rights, headed by Mr. Uhler, is the lead campaign committee for the measure. The California Republican Party and the Small Business Action Committee are major contributors to the Coalition for Employee Rights. Joel Fox, president of the Small Business Action Committee, was a Schwarzenegger advisor during the recall campaign and is co-chair of Citizens to Save California, a group formed to support Governor Schwarzenegger's reform agenda.
The Alliance for a Better California [Website archived in Internet Archive], a coalition of California public employee unions, is coordinating opposition to the measure. Among the prominent members of the alliance are the California Teachers Association, the California State Employees Association, and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
On September 17, 2005 Governor Schwarzenegger announced that he supported the measure. Prominent people in the governor's circle were early backers of the measure, and there was press speculation as to whether the governor would take a public stand. Union critics of the measure contend that the governor was a key behind-the-scenes supporter of the measure all along.
From the outset public employee unions viewed the measure as a direct threat to their political efficacy, and waged a no-holds-barred campaign to defeat it. Opponents spent over $43 million, far exceeding the $23 million spent to defeat Proposition 226 in 1998.
Official Voter Information
CA Propositions 75, 76, 77 Defeated; Propositions 73, 74 Could Go Either Way. SurveyUSA, Election Poll #7443, Nov. 7, 2005.
Knowledge Networks 2005 Election Survey. Palo Alto, Hoover Institute, Nov. 7, 2005. [Web site no longer active]
Schwarzenegger Propositions Still Trailing: Three of four ballot initiatives backed by Governor are behind
and Proposition 75 is now in a dead heat. Support for both prescription drug initiatives falls. Polimetrix poll, Nov. 6, 2005.
Propositions 75, 76 and 77 appear to be losing; Voters divided on proposition 74. Los Angeles Times Poll, Nov. 2, 2005.
Propositions 73, 74, 75, 77 Losing Ground. Survey USA, Election Poll #7362, Nov. 1, 2005.
"NO side leads YES side on all four of the propositions backed by Governor Schwarzenegger," Field Poll, Release 2174, Nov. 1, 2005.
Knowledge Networks 2005 Election Survey. Palo Alto, Hoover Institute, Oct. 17, 2005.
Methodology and results of survey one [Web site no longer active]
Methodology and results of survey two [Web site no longer active]
"Prop. 75 continues to lead by big margin: strong tide running against prop. 76: Yes vote dropping on Prop. 74: narrow sentiment against prop. 77: divided vote on Prop. 80," Field Poll, Release 2168, Sept. 5, 2005.
PPIC Statewide Survey: Special Survey on Californians and the Initiative Process. San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California, Aug. 2005.
"Union dues consent initiative getting heavy initial support, as do two drug discount propositions. Voters narrowly back parental notification for teen abortion," Field Poll, Release 2160, June 22, 2005.