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Labor, Wilson Clash Over Use of Union Dues

California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / PROPOSITION
226

Bitter campaign is becoming one of the most expensive initiative battles ever. Measure would require leaders to get workers' permission before making political donations.

May 25, 1998|ERIC BAILEY and CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — There've been threats, fear and a whole lot of bitterness.

No, this isn't the "Jerry Springer Show." It's the fist fight over Proposition 226, the union dues initiative on the June 2 ballot.

The two sides have raised and spent more than $20 million, according to campaign reports released Friday. That makes the contest one of the most expensive proposition battles in California history.

Most of the money has gone for contentious TV commercials and slashing radio spots. With unions giving lavishly, opponents have so far outspent supporters of the initiative by more than 3 to 1.

Under the gun, the proposition is dropping in the polls. And it's getting even uglier behind the scenes.

At the center of the brawl is Gov. Pete Wilson, who is leading the fight for Proposition 226. Wilson has been ubiquitous as he fights attempts to vilify a measure he considers a matter of fairness.

Proposition 226 would require unions to get permission from each member before spending their dues on politics. Organized labor and their Democratic allies worry that the dues measure would dry up campaign funding, tilting the political playing field in favor of Republicans and big business in the Golden State.

In recent days, Wilson has tussled with a few traditional allies--police unions, state prison guards, a Republican political consultant--over their opposition to the measure. The governor has threatened legal action against TV stations, including a Spanish-language network, to get anti-226 commercials yanked. He pushed the nonprofit United Way to back away from early opposition to Proposition 226.

Wilson has likewise managed to woo contributions from a few members of California's business community. That's an accomplishment because state business leaders proclaimed months ago that they would stick to the sidelines lest they see union ire rain down directly on their firms.

So far, Wilson has transferred more than $1.2 million from his gubernatorial campaign committee to the Proposition 226 battle. Among the recent donors to Wilson were Stockton developer Alex Spanos, the San Diego Chargers owner who contributed $300,000. The California Restaurant Assn. and its national parent group gave $250,000 to Wilson, while media mogul Rupert Murdoch donated $200,000 and Gallo wines gave $100,000. John Walton, one of the heirs to the Walmart fortune, gave $50,000 directly to the Yes on 226 campaign.

On the union side, the California Teachers Assn. has given $4.8 million, while the National Education Assn. has donated $2.6 million and the AFL-CIO has contributed $2.5 million.

Michael Hawkins, president of the state restaurant association, said eatery owners have been "under attack for years" by labor union officials in the Legislature and at the ballot box. They are especially angry over labor's push for the 1996 minimum wage increase.

Prop. 226 was the right weapon to fight back, he said. "We're tired of all the abuse after all these years. It is basically the right thing for us to do."

"It's payback," agreed Tom Rankin, president of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. He added that Wilson "is putting the squeeze on everyone he can."

Yes on 226 partisans also are upset about a massive anti-226 phone bank that is blanketing the state with calls urging rejection of the measure. The telephone pitch, Proposition 226 partisans contend, hit vulnerable voters with twisted truths, among them arguments that health benefits for the elderly will be slashed.

"They're trying to frighten every constituency they can to get them to vote against 226," said Kristy Khachigian, a spokesman for measure supporters. "It's complete lies."

But foes say the tactics are fair and grounded in the truth. Backers of 226 include conservative businessmen and organizations that support a broad agenda that includes killing Medicare. Proposition 226 is merely a method to reach such goals, they say. "I think we have every right to talk about those issues and their connection to this campaign," said Gale Kaufman, consultant for the measure's foes.

Opponents of the measure have been bolstered by endorsements from a raft of nonprofit organizations, including state chapters of the American Cancer Society, American Lung Assn. and American Heart Assn. Such groups say 226 is drafted so broadly that it could dry up their paycheck deduction programs.

The board of the state's major employee pension fund also has come out against Proposition 226 for similar reasons, saying it might disrupt deductions for retirement and health insurance.

Boosters of Proposition 226 say such arguments are bunk being perpetrated by groups with strong ties to the Democrats and labor. "The proposition simply doesn't say that," said Tom Hiltachk, legal counsel to the campaign. "This is politics at its worst."

Undaunted, Proposition 226 foes are using the nonprofit pitch to appeal to Republican women, whom they consider a key constituency if they are to defeat the proposition on election day.

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