The ability of public worker's unions to influence politics, already curtailed in several states, now faces a judgment day in California.
Proposition 75, one of eight ballot measures that Golden State voters will decide Nov. 8, would require public-sector employee unions to get written permission from members each year before spending their dues to support candidates or weigh in on elections.
The initiative, one of four promoted by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, would undermine a traditional source of support for Democrats. But in six states with similar laws - out of 26 that allow public employees to unionize - the outcomes have been uneven.
Proponents of the California proposal often cite Utah as a successful model, and its version of the law has had a considerable impact so far. Political spending and fund-raising by public employee unions has dropped significantly in Utah, according to the National Institute for Labor Relations Research (NILRR), an anti-union think tank in Virginia affiliated with the National Right to Work Foundation. The Utah Public Employees Association, which offers membership to any public employee in Utah, has abandoned its political spending entirely.
But in Washington state, which passed its law in 1992, unions have found wriggle room through legal loopholes and a friendly attorney general, according to Stan Greer, a senior researcher with the NILRR.
The Washington Education Association, for instance, set up an independent political action committee, called the "Community Outreach Program," to funnel money into political causes. Through such committees, public unions in Washington actually have increased their political spending in recent years, according to NILRR. There is currently a lawsuit brought by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation seeking to compel the state to shore up its enforcement of the law.
Idaho, Michigan, Ohio and Wyoming also have similar laws and have experienced varied effects because of differences in the regulations, such as controls on "hard" donations directly to candidates and not "soft" contributions to political parties. In Michigan, for example, the state has had a difficult time implementing its law on hard money donations. Many states ban political contributions from unions altogether.
Democrats and union officials, who largely oppose the California initiative, claim it would smother their political voice and tip the balance of campaign contributions in favor Republicans and corporate donors. In a tit for tat, they are gathering signatures to try to put a novel measure on the 2006 ballot to require corporations - a traditional source of support for Republican politicians - to get permission from stockholders before making political contributions.
Supporters of Proposition 75, including Schwarzenegger, call it "paycheck protection" and say it is meant to uphold individual rights within the unions and to shield union workers from having their money given to causes they do not support.
California voters already turned down a related but more expansive measure in 1998 that would have applied to all unions.
The current proposition was faring well with voters through September but lately has been losing steam, with a late October Los Angeles Times poll showing 40 percent of likely voters supporting it and 51 percent against it.
There are more than 1.3 million public-sector union members in California, according to a Web site that compiles union membership data from the Current Population Survey. The various public employee unions comprise teachers, police, firefighters and state government workers.
Public employee unions in California contributed about $6.7 million in the 2003-2004 election cycle, more than half of overall donations from unions, according to the Institute on Money in State Politics , a Montana-based campaign-finance research organization. Public-employee union spending, however, accounted for less than 3 percent of the nearly $229 million in total political spending in California.
Public-employee union members in California already can opt out of full membership and instead pay only partial dues - called agency or fair-share fees - that help defray the cost of collective bargaining that benefits all employees. Agency fees cannot be used for political purposes. A quarter of public union members in California choose this route, which also causes them to lose their voting rights for union leadership.
But if the measure passes, public unions' political war chest would take a big hit because workers would have to "opt in" to make their union dues available for political purposes, rather than having to "opt out," shifting the burden from the workers onto the unions themselves.
"It makes a big difference, because it's a lot easier to not do anything than to do something," said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. Stern said the impact would last for at least a few years, until unions hone a way to get around it.
Even if the measure is defeated, more union members are likely to opt out of political spending, simply because the publicity around Proposition 75 has made them more aware that opting out is a possibility, Stern said. The number of public-employee union members that opt out could as much as double, Stern said.
Stefan Gleason, vice president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, said that the proposition is important largely as a symbolic effort because it likely will not end the use of union dues for political purposes.
Proposition 75 has a built-in hatch that still would allow unions to spend dues without permission to advocate and lobby for causes, as long as they are not specifically related to the outcome of an election. The unions could, for example, run ads voicing support for a particular policy stance of a candidate, but could not contribute directly to that candidate's campaign.