Payroll deductions targeted

jortiz@sacbee.comSeptember 23, 2012 

Proposition 32 has drawn fire for a provision to ban payroll-deducted money from being used for political purposes. The measure would apply the prohibition to both unions and corporations, which often vie for influence in Sacramento. It also would ban direct contributions from either group to candidates, but allow both to continue spending unlimited sums on independent expenditure campaigns. So-called "IEs" are considered constitutionally protected free speech.

The measure would severely affect unions' political funds, money drawn directly from their members' paychecks. Business interests get their money from other sources, including executive contributions and company treasuries.

The Bee recently spoke to Proposition 32 opponent Derek Cressman, regional director of good-government group Common Cause. Former Democratic state Sen. Gloria Romero of Los Angeles, who supports the measure, also shared her thoughts. Here are some highlights:


Why are you supporting Proposition 32?

Sacramento is broken. It's dysfunctional. I believe 32 gives us the best opportunity to take back our government.

You're a Democrat, and you're a union member. Why haven't more Democrats stepped up and endorsed this if it's such a good idea?

There's fear. Taking on the system is not for the faint of heart. … Sadly, sometimes, being a reformer doesn't always translate into being a good politician.

Unions have said 32 tilts political power to the wealthy and away from the middle class. Doesn't it really further the interest of the 1 percent?

I'm a Latina Democrat who represented East L.A., OK? … I'm not a 1 percenter.

… This is about democratization within a union. This isn't about the unions becoming weaker. The members become stronger.

The boards of the unions say, "Well, the members won't give money any more." To some extent they are telling the truth because the members want a voice. I look at this as empowerment of the grass-roots democracy in unions.

You say the measure enhances democracy and transparency, but last week an opaque group with apparent ties to the conservative Koch brothers contributed $4 million to an independent committee set up to support Prop. 32. Isn't that a political problem for your side?

We can't control independent expenditures. I don't even know who the Koch brothers are. Are there two of them? Three of them? Four of them? I don't even know how many of them there are. It's a side issue.

Am I concerned? Well, I've said, maybe that's $4 million less that will be spent against Obama in the state of Ohio or Colorado.

Politics makes strange bedfellows. In that sense, I'm interested in what is the message, what is the cause that brings about an end – to the greatest extent we can – the influence of special interests in California. I'll stand with whoever stands with me on that issue.

Why the payroll deduction provision? Your side admits this would hit unions harder.

Quote-unquote, "hits unions harder." But then you have to ask who are unions? They're members. I look at 32 as it empowers the individual members. It empowers the rank and file.

… The last measure (in 2005), that only went for unions and I didn't support it. This one goes for the left and the right, unions and corporations.

Remember, the payroll deduction provision is just for political purposes. Advocacy, collective bargaining, representation, the lobbying corps in those nice suits in Sacramento, that's not changed by 32.

Labor says this would be Armageddon for them, but to what extent would Prop. 32 weaken your party in blue-state California?

I wouldn't say weaken. … This is about Democrats rethinking our relationship with public-sector unions. … We're at a critical juncture. Tectonic plates of politics are shifting and we're seeing it most importantly in California. Executive boards of the unions are scared of this. Rank-and-file members are not.


What's the problem with Proposition 32?

It doesn't do what it says it will do. We think it does a disservice to voters to purport that it does.

But doesn't the status quo tilt toward labor? Don't payroll deductions make employers the unions' de facto bill collectors?

If you look at the numbers, corporate and business interests spend more money (on politics) than labor, although both are obviously huge special interests in our state. In terms of who has an advantage, right now corporate CEOs collect money from customers and shareholders given purely for economic purposes, and without the consent or even the knowledge of those people, and use the funds for political purposes.

Labor unions do have some advantages. … The difference, though, is that they're organized for economic and political purposes, so it's reasonable that they would be spending part of their members' dues on politics. And even there, protections exist that if members disagree they don't have to fund that.

Some union members complain they feel coerced to contribute to political causes they don't agree with.

At least they have a choice. When you join a corporation as a shareholder, you don't get to pick and choose which of the economic activities you support. You can't say, I like AT&T's cellphone business but I don't like their landline business, so I'd only like to use my shares for investing in the cellphone side.

It's not coercion, that's just the way it works when you join an enterprise with a lot of people in it.

If Proposition 32 were enacted, wouldn't unions have to figure out another way to collect political money and make a stronger case to members for what that money does?

If your goal is weaker labor unions, then I could see how Prop. 32 fits with that agenda. But one of the things we've realized in our country is that we can get more done when we do things together. … We could say every year, for example, that the corporation's going to give you back your shares and you're going to have to decide individually whether you want to reinvest, and which of the corporation's activities do you want to invest in. But that doesn't make sense.

Do you think Prop. 32 would shut down organized labor's political fundraising? Or would it simply force it to seek another avenue for those funds?

Sure, any law you pass, people seek to evade. Laws against murder have not prevented murder. Laws on campaign reform, people find ways around them. That's not an argument for saying laws don't have any value or impact. This law would have a strong impact on labor.

Remember all the things that Prop. 32 doesn't do. It says it bans corporate contributions to candidates, but there are lots of business entities that could continue to contribute directly. It doesn't do anything with billionaire contributions to super PACs. … It doesn't do anything with corporation or billionaire contributions to our initiative process.

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