Labor And The Gop: A Shoot Out In California

And unions have come up with some ammo of their own

Organized labor is gearing up to fight its biggest threat since Republicans captured Congress in 1994: GOP-sponsored legislation that would force unions to get annual written permission from members before donating money to political campaigns. "These initiatives are an attempt by conservatives and business to silence the voice of working families," AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney says simply. So, on Feb. 7, he planned to convene a war council of several hundred top union political directors to plot a counterattack.

The first GOP beachhead is the state of California, where a June referendum has already garnered the strong backing of Republican Governor Pete Wilson. The proposition is being pushed by Republican activist Grover G. Norquist and other allies of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). The speaker, along with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), pushed similar bills last year but failed. Now, they plan to reintroduce the legislation in early March. But meanwhile, Norquist's group has placed initiatives on ballots in Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon. And he threatens to follow up in all 50 states.

STRIKING BACK. In California, unions expect to spend some $8 million on television advertisements and phone banks to battle the initiative. They also will call thousands of activists to demonstrations. "We need to make clear that the people pushing this are right-wingers who want to stop workers from complaining about issues like Medicare cuts," says AFL-CIO Legislation Dept. Director Peggy Taylor.

Labor also is striking back with a counterproposal. The unions' plan would require annual authorization from stockholders for corporate political spending, which is 11 times greater than labor's and skewed sharply toward Republicans. In California, unions say that they have gotten more than the 350,000 signatures that are needed to get a measure on the ballot. On Feb. 3, however, labor held off filing after business groups agreed not to fund the anti-union initiative. "We want to stay neutral since many companies have good working relations with unions," says California Manufacturers Assn. President William Campbell.

A Washington state law shows the danger unions face. In 1992, the state passed a less sweeping law than the proposed California bill. It only requires unions to get written authorization for paycheck deductions that go to political action committees. Result: the Washington Education Assn.'s annual PAC contributions plunged from $548,000 to $120,000 today. WEA officials point out that unpaid volunteer teachers buttonhole members for its PAC signup, while many unions have full-time shop stewards who could be counted on to gather signatures. Still, it would be a costly logistical nightmare to get separate written authorizations from each of the 16 million union members every year.

Organized labor faces an uphill fight. National and California polls show that some 70% of voters agree with the initiatives. But many voters change their minds when they hear labor officials explain in focus groups just how the measure could cripple unions politically, says Taylor. Given how much labor must spend to stave off the Republican initiatives, it seems they're already succeeding.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.