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6 Other States Shaped Prop. 75

Union influence has not been curbed elsewhere by limits on use of dues. Backers of California's proposition hope they have tighter reins.

October 29, 2005|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Labor's political influence in this capital has been under assault since 1992, when Washington became the first state to restrict the use of union members' dues for campaigns.

The number of teachers who agreed to pay into the Washington Education Assn.'s political action committee has plunged from 48,000 to 7,000.

But the union is hardly enfeebled. In last year's elections, it donated the maximum allowed to 49 candidates, state records show. Six of the seven candidates for whom the union campaigned won, and the teachers defeated for the third time an initiative intended to allow public charter schools.

"Their influence has increased," said Bob Williams, a former Republican state senator who helped write the law and now runs a think tank, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, that has sparred repeatedly with the teachers.

In a quest to change the way labor engages in politics, union critics have achieved victories across the country. Most of those campaigns have been led by a loose confederation of GOP lawmakers, anti-tax activists and state-based think tanks such as Williams' that receive support from business executives and conservative foundations.

Through their efforts, six states have adopted laws that restrict the way labor union dues can be used. But unions, using aggressive legal challenges and accounting shifts that take advantage of loopholes, have proved adept at stymieing the full effects of the limitations

The unions' critics hope California will become their greatest victory yet. Voters in the Nov. 8 special election will consider Proposition 75, which would require public employee unions to annually obtain members' permission before using any of their dues for political campaigns. With the help of groups such as Williams', the initiative has been crafted to avoid some of the disappointments that proponents experienced in other states.

"I think our measure is pretty tightly drawn," said Lewis Uhler, the measure's sponsor and president of the National Tax Limitation Committee.

But aspirations of reining in labor's influence outside California have proved overly optimistic time and again.

Grover Norquist, an anti-tax activist in Washington, D.C., who has encouraged the campaigns and is an ally of Uhler, predicted in 1998 that "as soon as a Republican president is elected, 'paycheck protection' will be signed into federal law." But the nation's Republican-dominated capital has not fulfilled that forecast.

Proposals have been defeated in several states, including Oregon and California, which rejected a version in 1998 that would have banned all unions -- public and private -- from using member dues for politics without their consent.

And in states where laws have passed, unions have managed to blunt their effect. Union dues restrictions that passed in Idaho and Ohio are stuck in limbo amid court challenges.

Unions in Michigan and Washington, the first states to pass such measures, are thriving. Despite steep dips in their campaign kitties, they have circumvented the restrictions by rechanneling the ways they use dues money.

In the 2004 elections, the Washington Education Assn. spent $1.4 million, records show. Only a quarter of that came from the political action committee set up for members who volunteered to support political activities; the rest came from the union's regular budget.

"While they succeeded in pushing through changes in the law, they did not succeed in shutting down members' voices, as witnessed in our numerous successes in the last election," said Debra Carnes, the union's spokeswoman.

Williams blames state regulators and judges for excessively loose interpretations of Washington's law and legislators for subsequently weakening it further. Several rulings narrowed the law so that it only prohibits unions from diverting a predetermined amount of dues to political efforts. That means that Washington unions face no restriction on spending dues money for political issues that arise over the course of a year.

"What I've found over the years is that unions are a business," Williams said. "They find a way around, under or over any initiative within four years."

Michigan has required public- and private-employee unions to obtain member approval for using dues on politics since 1994. But unions have been able to remain potent by focusing their money on issue advocacy and get-out-the-vote drives, which are legal uses of dues money.

"To be honest, the law doesn't work very well," said Bob Hunter, a management-side labor lawyer who works with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan nonprofit that championed that state's law.

Though the proportion of teachers contributing to the Michigan Education Assn.'s political action committee dropped from 90% to a third, the average donation has grown from $5 to $40, according to Margaret Trimer-Hartley, a union spokeswoman.

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