A Bazooka Aimed At Big Labor Backfires On The Gop

Republicans may rue the day they made war on labor. The June 2 defeat of California Proposition 226--which would have clamped down on union political spending--undercuts similar drives in other states. It's a big blow to the Presidential aspirations of retiring California Governor Pete Wilson, who stumped for Prop 226. And labor's come-from-behind victory spells trouble for Republicans. Crippling one of the GOP's biggest-spending foes was a key component of plans to retain control of the House this fall.

A few months ago, Prop 226 looked like a winner. Polls showed overwhelming support for its requirement that unions get annual written permission from each member before spending dues on political activities. And it had heavy backing by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who has been struggling to pass similar legislation in Congress. Gingrich's objective was to punish labor for a $35 million anti-GOP campaign in 1996 that nearly handed the House back to the Democrats. But unions launched a furious $20 million counterattack.

TAPPING ANGER. Now, the defeat of the initiative will intensify the angst of Republican leaders. They have moved to the right of late to firm up their conservative base and worry that they can't find issues that will resonate with mainstream voters in November.

At the same time, the defeat of Prop 226 has come as a badly needed pick-me-up for a labor movement demoralized by the Teamsters corruption scandal. Now, labor hopes to tap into the anger of thousands of rank-and-file activists to kill Prop 226 clones in about 30 states and capture the 11 House seats needed to throw Gingrich & Co. out of power. "We gained new strength and momentum heading into the fall elections," crows AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney.

As the fighting intensifies, business is getting caught in the crossfire. Corporate executives in California, fearful of provoking a counterattack by labor, adopted a neutral stance on Prop 226. That didn't stop labor from blanketing the airwaves with ads that cast the fight as a power grab by greedy corporations. The upshot is that Corporate America will be even more wary about backing the other state measures. "Business should really be worried," says U.S. Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice-President R. Bruce Josten.

Josten's fear: The California win shows how much political strength labor can still muster. While national unions kicked in about $5 million, most of the funds came from California locals, which recruited 24,000 volunteers to set up phone banks, walk precincts, and stage rallies. Unions also campaigned intensively among their own members. For example, the United Food & Commercial Workers sent 75,000 California members a 10-minute anti-Prop 226 video.

Gingrich confidant Grover Norquist, the conservative activist behind the national drive to curb union political power, is already rewriting his game plan. Conceding that labor may have the clout to kill ballot measures, Norquist says he'll ramp up the battle in several state legislatures that are debating bills similar to Prop 226. Adds Dan Burdish, executive director of the Nevada Republican Party, which has a proposition on the state's November ballot: "We have to adjust our strategy."

The GOP finds some solace in the fact that labor's victory came at a steep price. The millions spent against Prop 226 won't be available for the fall elections. Still, unions dodged what could have been a devastating blow to their political effectiveness. And now they're more determined than ever to finish the job they began in '96.