Every electoral season brings forth new lessons in how money and deceit can be used to corrupt the California initiative process.
But it will be hard for future players to top the promoters of a new initiative that is designed to sap the political strength of the state's public employee unions, yet comes disguised as an "employee empowerment" measure.
This initiative would require all public employee unions to obtain annual written permission from their members before contributing money to political candidates or groups. The promoters hope to exploit human inertia to hobble the unions in one of their most important functions, which is to support candidates who promote workers' interests over industrialists': If union members have to affirmatively approve such expenditures every year, the backers assume, a sizable percentage won't bother.
The perpetrators, who hide behind the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing moniker of the Coalition for Employee Rights but are actually financed by big business, began submitting petition signatures this week.
Their hope is to qualify the proposal for the next state ballot, either a special election in November or the regular vote in June 2006.
If a more cynical and dishonest ballot proposal has come down the pike in recent years, I can't imagine what it might be. The measure resembles Proposition 226, which was soundly defeated in 1998, a time when such "paycheck protection" measures enjoyed a nationwide vogue. But that initiative applied to all unions in the state; this one is aimed only at public employee unions.
The campaign's spearhead is Lewis K. Uhler, a Sacramento-area land developer with impeccable credentials as a right-wing anti-tax crusader. He says he's motivated by a sincere concern that thousands of California government workers are being extorted by their unions, via dues and fees, to pay for political campaigns with which they disagree.
When we spoke this week, Uhler called this situation "a violation of fundamental civil rights on the part of the employees who may or may not like candidates or ballot positions supported by the unions." He repeated a chestnut attributed to Thomas Jefferson, that "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical," and portrayed his initiative as a tool to free "indentured servants" (i.e., the union members). "We're trying to re-empower the employee in a meaningful way," he said.
These are fine sentiments, except that as applied to public employees in California they're nonsensical. For all that Uhler describes the lot of government workers in terms that evoke a chain gang in a '30s movie, the fact is that virtually no public employee in California is compelled to join a union to get or keep a job. Nor can any be compelled to pay even a dime of dues or fees for political activities with which he or she disagrees. With very few exceptions, every public employee already has the legal right to refuse to join a union, to object to a union's expenditures for any purpose other than contract negotiations and contract administration, and to not pay for such expenditures or even receive a rebate.
Most workers who object have to pay an "agency" or "fair share" fee to cover the unions' contracting and bargaining functions alone, on the grounds that those benefit them too.
Every union must distinguish contract-related expenditures from all others in annual reports that are open to the scrutiny of employees. If any problems arise, there's a state agency, the Public Employee Relations Board, empowered to adjudicate disputes.
Uhler wasn't up to speed on all these points when I called him this week; he didn't even seem to know of the board's existence.
After checking in with a few experts, he called me to assert that the unions must be concealing some of these rights from employees. "The fact that the overwhelming majority of public employees are members of the unions suggests that these things aren't being presented dispassionately," he said, as though he couldn't imagine why any worker would join a union, given a fair choice. (In fact, about 25% of all covered state employees remain nonmembers of the unions.)
Virtually the entire war chest for Uhler's campaign comes from an entity called the Small Business Action Committee, which derives its reported funding from such mom 'n' pop outfits as tobacco company Philip Morris USA; Ameriquest Capital, a lender to low-credit borrowers that has been investigated for fraud by authorities in as many as 25 states; Pacific Gas & Electric Co.; Irvine Co.; and Shorenstein Co., a big commercial real estate developer.