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Mar 20, 2005 - 01:00 AM
by Andy Furillo, Bee Capitol Bureau
Measure targets unions' money
The initiative would require public workers' consent to use their dues for political purposesRight now, just one tax-cut activist is fronting the effort to check the political clout of the state's public employee unions.
Lurking in the background, however, are the nation's biggest drug companies and their $7.7 million stash of campaign funds, not to mention Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a political campaign committee for which he has pledged to raise millions more.
If and when some or all of them engage in a fight to force the unions to get written employee consent before they can spend dues money for political purposes, it could become the most explosive campaign of the 2005 special election season.
"This will be a donnybrook if it qualifies for the ballot," said Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies. "The unions will consider this life or death."
The measure differs in scope from the unsuccessful Proposition 226 campaign in 1998. That initiative tried to require all unions, private-sector workers as well as public, to obtain employee consent before spending dues money on political campaigns. This one would affect only the public labor groups.
Lew Uhler is the activist who is president of the National Tax Limitation Committee and leader of the campaign that is gathering signatures to get the "employee consent" measure on the ballot. The way he sees it, union money has led to union influence over state and local politicians in California, which has led to union-favoring policy decisions on pensions and other matters that he thinks are driving the state into bankruptcy.
"To the extent that the political activities of unions might be diminished, then their demands for the kinds of working conditions, pensions, et cetera, that they are now getting will be mollified," Uhler said. "And I think that will be a boon to our control over governmental activities in our state."
Uhler said that slicing off the private-sector unions turns the matter into a more purely focused taxpayer issue.
"After all, you and I pay their salaries, and you and I are accomplices in the withholding of funds for political purposes," he said.
According to the secretary of state's office, 119 political committees of assorted locals for 59 unions representing city police officers, firefighters, social service workers, state clerks, prison officers and trash haulers, among other workers, spent more than $52 million on political campaign activity in California last year.
This year, the California Teachers Association alone is looking to raise $50 million through increased union dues to fight Schwarzenegger if there's a special election in November.
Every penny of it is going to be essential, union leaders say, to fight what they contend is a creeping corporatism that has dominated the political agenda in California since Schwarzenegger, a Republican, ousted former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, in the 2003 recall campaign.
No figures were readily available on the total political spending on the part of the business community in California last year. But according to the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, Schwarzenegger alone received more than $23 million in corporate contributions.
Art Pulaski, the secretary-treasurer of the California Federation of Labor, sees the employee consent measure as an effort by corporate interests to stifle the political voice of the state's working class, and he lays it all at the snakeskin-boot-clad feet of Schwarzenegger.
"The governor is making lots of friends with big business and raising lots of money, and here working people are trying to compete in some small way, and they want to silence that," Pulaski said. "It all comes down to an even bigger power grab by the governor. He's picking sides, and he's picking sides with big business on every issue, and that will just motivate workers to come out and vote."
While Uhler is the author of the measure now making the signature-gathering rounds, it is a Laguna Niguel-based campaign committee called the Coalition for Employee Rights that is paying for the effort.
Identities of the committee's financial backers, however, remain a mystery. Committee treasurer James V. Lacy said he'll disclose his donors when it's required. In the meantime, he said his committee was "spawned" by the Schwarzenegger-affiliated Citizens to Save California, although the measure still has not officially been endorsed by the committee or the governor.
Gale Kaufman, the Sacramento political consultant running the campaign against the measure, took a poke at the proponents' refusal to disclose their funding.
"The only reason they're not saying is because it's the same people who are funding everything else the governor is doing," she said.
A spokesman for the state Fair Political Practices Commission said recipient committees such as Lacy's don't have to immediately file disclosure reports until they raise $50,000. Once they reach the threshold, all contributions of $5,000 or more have to be disclosed within 10 days of their receipt, the spokesman said.
Although the Uhler proposal is the one making the rounds on the streets, another backed by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America proposes even tougher obstacles for the public employee unions. It would ban governmental agencies from deducting union dues for any public employee labor organization engaged in political campaign spending. Workers instead would have to write out dues checks on their own.
The drug companies have already banked the $7.7 million to pay for that campaign as well as two others. Their measure awaits a title and summary from the attorney general's office.
The Bee's Andy Furillo can be reached at (916) 321-1141 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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