The Corporate/Right-Wing Attack on Labor Is Heading Your Way
Face-Off in California: Prop 226, The "Campaign Reform Initiative"On June 2, when Californians cast their votes on Proposition 226, being peddled by the right as the "Campaign Reform Initiative," they will be deciding if the above "doomsday scenario for labor" will move one step closer to reality. For many years the right, in collaboration with corporate interests, has waged a persistent war on labor. This conflict has had many fronts: from the red- baiting of popular union leaders like United Farm Workers Union president Cesar Chavez during the lettuce and grape strikes two decades ago, to the ongoing attempt at undermining current AFL- CIO head John Sweeney; from Ronald Reagan's crushing of the PATCO air controllers' union in the early eighties to the present right-wing deregulation mantra seeking the elimination of OSHA protection for worker health and safety. Although labor couldn't possibly hope to equal the campaign largess of corporate and right wing interests, the AFL-CIO actively injected itself into the 1996 elections. Joel Bleifuss writing in In These Times says that "Under the leadership of John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO deployed an unprecedented amount of resources....Unions spent $119 million on federal political activity in the 1995-96 election cycle, including $35 million on AFL-CIO issue ads, $66 million in campaign contributions, and $18.5 million on political lobbying campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Although unions were outspent by business 7-to-1 overall, Democrats won one-third of the Republican districts directly targeted by labor." Labor's modest successes, both in recent organizing drives and in the electoral arena, was more than the right could countenance. It was time to serve up some of the anti-labor-policy stew that has been simmering in the cauldrons of right wing think tanks and policy institutes over the past decade. Last fall, Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickles introduced the "Payroll Protection Act" aimed at making it illegal for unions to use a union member's dues "for political activities" including "communications or other activities which involve carrying on propaganda, attempting to influence legislation, or participating or intervening in any political campaign or political party" without the written consent of that union member.While Nickles' bill lingers in Congress, the right moved to the state level and is pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign for California's Proposition 226. According to reporter Harold Myerson, Prop. 226 "would require unions to get yearly permission from each of their members to spend money for political purposes, which includes contributing to candidates or initiative campaigns, or waging independent expenditure campaigns on behalf of those candidates or initiatives. In reality, business spends $11 for every labor dollar, but corporations are not touched by this initiative. They will not be required to get written permission from stockholders before they financially back political candidates. In our current political climate the right has mastered semantics and the art of "turning" a phrase. Proposition 226 advocates talk "fairness" and the "right of free choice," in addition to an economic appeal to "take the money away from a few union bureaucrats and put it back in the pockets of union members." The real issue, asserts a late April Oakland Tribune editorial, is that Prop. 226 is "simply an attempt by anti-union advocates to dilute the political power of the working class.So who's paying the freight for Proposition 226? Most of the major contributors are out-of-state long-time right-wing contributors and strategists including: Americans for Tax Reform, run by Grover Norquist, a political unknown outside the beltway but a highly influential figure on the right -- Norquist's ATR "paid for the 1.5 million piece mailing of the petition which qualified the initiative for the ballot," and he has pledged $10 million for a nationwide effort; Carl H. Lindner, chairman, American Financial Group, Cincinnati; the ubiquitous Richard Mellon Scaife, one of the chief funders of all things rightwing and a major figure in anti-Clinton activities; and J. Patrick Rooney, Chairman of the Indianapolis-based Golden Rule Insurance Company, substantial contributor to school voucher plans throughout the country, and donor of more than $1.2 million to conservative causes including Newt Gingrich's GOPAC (Western States Center's "Ballot Initiative Strategy Center").* On the think tank front, support for Proposition 226 is predictably coming from conservative institutions like the Heritage Foundation** and the Claremont Institute.*** Honorary chairman of the campaign none other than Governor Pete Wilson, the master of the wedge issue -- witness his exploitation of anti-immigrant sentiment with Proposition 187 and his fostering of racial polarization with the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209. Columnist John Jacobs writing in the Sacramento Bee "[T]o quell any doubts about his 'conservative' credentials in a party where conservatives overwhelmingly dominate the presidential nominating process, Wilson has aligned himself with deeply conservative out-of-state political forces. These forces hate unions and see labor's ability to spend money on behalf of Democratic candidates as the principal impediment to further GOP gains nationally and in California.What are the potential consequences of the passage of Proposition 226 and similar initiatives around the country? Researcher Daniel Junas prepared an extensive study after a similar initiative passed in Washington state, "Campaign Finance Reform in Washington State: The Impact of Initiative 134." Junas' study examines how that state's initiative failed in two of its primary objectives: it did not give individuals and interest groups "fair and equal opportunity to influence elective and governmental processes," and it didn't "reduce the influence of large organizational contributors." In fact the initiative "reduced the influence of organized labor," while "overall, business' advantage over organized labor increased markedly" thereby "produc[ing] an ideologically more conservative legislature that favored business over organized labor and that was hostile to environmental legislation."Although early polls have shown strong support for Proposition 226, the tide may be shifting as organized labor develops its message, loosens its purse strings and calls in its Democratic Party chits. Labor's voice must be loud and clear; lurking underneath the surface of righteous sounding rhetoric is the full force of the right-wing agenda. Unions are pretty much the only organized political voice supporting working class issues. A victory for Proposition 226 will usher in another period of reaction, combining anti-worker legislation and more strident attacks on teacher's unions, with school voucher initiatives, medical savings accounts, the privatization of Social Security and draconian anti-abortion regulations, anti-gay ballot measures and lots more trouble for all of us.**** * The "Ballot Initiative Strategy Center" provides information on important statewide initiatives at its web site: http://www.ballot.org/. It also links to Californians to Protect Employee Rights -- web site: http://www.defeatprop226.org/. ** Heritage recently established "The Labor Home Page" where backgrounder #1171, "California's Proposition 226: What It Means For Union Members And Their Family Budgets" is available (http://www.heritage.org). *** The Claremont Institute provides documents on "Campaign Finance/Citizens' Rights (Including Special Information on Prop. 226)" at its web site (http://www.claremont.org). **** OMB Watch has prepared a report, "Impact of California's Proposition 226 on Nonprofit Organizations" available at http://ombwatch.org/ombwatch.html.Bill Berkowitz edits CultureWatch, DataCenter's monthly newsletter that monitors the right's political and social agenda. Subscriptions are $35 per year, 1904 Franklin St., Oakland CA 94612; phone: (510) 835-4692), web site: http://www.igc.org/culturewatch.