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Union Members Quiet on Prop. 75

October 22, 2005|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — As labor critics seek to limit the use of union dues in California politics, one group is mostly steering clear of the Proposition 75 campaign: the workers whose rights the initiative claims to be championing.

Despite their entreaties, advocates for the initiative have been able to recruit only a handful of the state's public employee union members to make appearances, give money or participate in campaign ads.

Out of more than 1 million union members who would be affected by the measure, only 181 have publicly endorsed it.

The absence of union members within the Campaign for Paycheck Protection is striking because its advocates say that one-third to one-half of union households favor the measure.

Proposition 75 would require public employee unions to obtain members' permission annually to use a portion of their dues for political campaigns.

Union leaders insist that the dearth of public support among their membership shows that the Yes on 75 campaign's professed concern for workers' rights is disingenuous. It is longtime union adversaries who really want the measure passed, these leaders say.

"If you look at the folks who are making the major contributions, they are all very right-wing, very conservative folks, none that I can see who have ever been in a labor union," said Lou Paulson, president of the California Firefighters Assn.

Campaign finance records show that 73% of the nearly $4.9 million raised by the proposition's advocates so far has come from nine sources, including wealthy bankers and business executives who favor private school vouchers and conservative activism; the California Republican Party; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and an association of engineers and land surveyors that is a frequent adversary of the Caltrans engineers union.

Eric Beach, a spokesman for the Yes on 75 campaign, said about 100 union members had donated money, but he declined to release their names.

The campaign said union members feel too intimidated by labor leadership and their colleagues to be identified with the effort.

"I've had two teachers, union activists, tell me I have to watch my back," said Lillian Perry, a teacher in the Fontana Unified School District, who has been one of the most vocal advocates for the measure. "I guess I'm sort of like a Rosa Parks or Harriet Tubman at this point. I'm pretty much walking around with a bull's-eye on my head."

The initiative's sponsor, anti-tax activist Lewis K. Uhler, cited his own son, Mark, as an example of union members' reluctance to speak out for the measure. He said he asked his son, a middle school English teacher in Sacramento, to appear in a campaign commercial for the initiative because the son supports it.

"I beat him around the head and ears a little bit to try and do it," Uhler said with a laugh, "but I am not going to force him to do something that he feels could have an adverse impact on his public school career."

However, Mark Uhler said he did not fear any repercussions and that his father never pressed the matter.

"It was his personal view that it would have jeopardized me," Mark Uhler said.

He said he would have been happy to join the campaign but assumed that his opinion would be discounted because of his father's role.

With few union members racing to publicly embrace the campaign, advocates have relied on public employees who are not union members to play a lead role. Those workers pay so-called agency fees to help cover labor leaders' cost of the collective bargaining that sets pay and benefits for all. However, none of that money goes toward politics.

At a debate before the Sacramento press club in September, the campaign was represented by Sandra Crandall, a kindergarten teacher at the Fountain Valley School District in Orange County who is an agency fee payer. She also provides one of three testimonials on the campaign's website.

Several of the lead union members in the campaign are Republicans with their own political aspirations.

A recent mail piece from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign team included comments from Allan R. Mansoor, an Orange County sheriff's deputy who is mayor of Costa Mesa, and James Galley, a San Diego water plant operator and union member who last year made an unsuccessful bid as a Republican for the California Senate. He currently is running for Congress.

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit group that opposes compulsory union membership, has been pressing the California Teachers Assn. to refund a $60 assessment the union had levied on each of its 335,000 members to help fight the special election.

But only five of the 17 teachers who signed a recent e-mail letter urging 90,000 educators to demand refunds were union members; the other dozen were agency fee payers.

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