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Union Foes Use State as Key Battleground

March 22, 1998|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — It's not often that a school board race helps ignite a national movement that gives America's union bosses the shakes. But that is what happened after Frank Ury got dumped as a school trustee in Orange County.

Incensed that he and like-minded conservatives were being knocked off by the powerful California Teachers Assn., Ury and two buddies found a way to fight back: A ballot measure to dramatically curb organized labor's ability to raise money for politics.

After a humble beginning, Proposition 226 promises to become the most heavily financed initiative on California's June ballot, and among the priciest in state history. And it has put California at the forefront of a revolution that could alter the political landscape of America.

Following California's lead, about 30 other states have similar anti-union measures in the works, and proponents expect to spread their gospel to all 50 by next year. It is also a hot-button issue in Congress.

The initiative, dubbed "paycheck protection" by backers, seems simple enough. It would require organized labor to get permission from union members each year before using their dues for political purposes. But the fallout could be devastating to hard-hat liberals: In two states with similar laws now on the books, union contributions to politics fell by more than 75%.

Foes of the measure talk in apocalyptic terms. By undercutting some of the most devoted donors to the Democratic Party, the initiative could leave the political battlefield largely to Republicans. Conservatives, they warn, would run wild with a rightist agenda, slashing Medicare and Social Security, privatizing schools, curbing workers rights, and boosting the advantages enjoyed by big business.

Although the measure in California remains amorphous to most voters, that will change in the weeks before the June 2 election, as dueling TV advertising campaigns clog prime time.

Backers say they are willing to spend up to $10 million and won't be surprised if unions spend three times that. Though foes say their budget is hardly so robust, the AFL-CIO on Thursday approved a plan to spend $13 million on campaign issues nationwide, with most of the money going to defeat Proposition 226.

The measure has been embraced by a coterie of national Republican leaders, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate GOP Leader Trent Lott. Gov. Pete Wilson, who is chairman of the Yes on 226 campaign, has dispatched his top political operatives into the fray.

"This is an extremely important debate that will affect politics for a generation to come," said Grover Norquist, whose Washington, D.C.-based Americans for Tax Reform is shepherding the national anti-union movement and donated $441,000 to put Proposition 226 on the ballot. "Our success in California will prove helpful in the rest of the country."

Teachers Union's Power at Stake

Union bosses promise a tough nationwide fight, but their beachhead is the Golden State. If Proposition 226 can be stopped, they surmise, it might slow the march of anti-union measures across the country.

They say the proposal will undercut workers, silencing the voice of the average employee who depends on the union to be heard at the state Capitol and in Congress. They also say it is a backlash against the growing strength of unions and their success in the 1996 elections, when labor spent $119 million to help Democrats nearly retake the House.

"They're trying to get back at us," said John Sweeney, AFL-CIO national president. "They don't want us to be strong. . . . This is an attempt by some wealthy people to keep workers from participating in the political process."

Opponents of Proposition 226 predict that it could have particularly harsh ramifications in California for school teachers.

The California Teachers Assn. has long been the most powerful union voice in the state. If its political might was drained, it could give renewed energy to advocates of school privatization. The CTA, which spent more than $9 million to defeat a school vouchers initiative in 1993, expects a similar battle in November or the 2000 elections.

The teachers union has committed $3 million to fight Proposition 226, while the National Education Assn. has chipped in $500,000.

"It's up and running on the West Coast and it's moving East," said Kathleen Lyons, an NEA spokeswoman. "We're concerned about it nationwide."

Backers of the measure include some of the main players in the vouchers battle. Indiana insurance tycoon J. Patrick Rooney, who gave $49,000 to boost the initiative, is a longtime champion of vouchers, supports privatizing Medicare and is an ally of Gingrich. Howard Ahmanson, a conservative Christian from Orange County, was a force behind California's 1993 voucher fight.

And the three Orange County activists who first pushed Proposition 226--Ury, Jim Righeimer and Mark Bucher--all are devout voucher supporters.

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