Election 2012

By Jon Ortiz
jortiz@sacbee.com
Published: Monday, Sep. 17, 2012 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

Labor unions argue that a campaign-finance measure on California’s November ballot would unfairly hobble their political pull, but behind that lies a tacit admission: If given an easy choice, many of their members would keep the dues money that helps power union clout.

By banning payroll-deducted money from California politics, Proposition 32 would undoubtedly boost the number of political “free riders” in employee unions.

Although labor leaders universally oppose the measure, some union members support it as a way to make their representatives more responsive. Some, pressed by wage and benefit cuts, wonder what they’re getting for their money. And some just want to hang on to a little more cash.

“Certainly getting the money back would be a help,” said Tobin Brinker, a furloughed teacher and former San Bernardino city councilman who works at Frisbie Middle School in Rialto. “But this is also about representation. I’m a conservative, and I wish our union represented conservatives better.”

Proposition 32 expressly forbids “unions and corporations” from making direct contributions to state and local candidates or causes, although they could still fund independent political campaigns and contribute to candidates for federal office.

Especially loathsome to labor is the proposed ban on using payroll-deducted money to fund political efforts. Any money collected via that method would have to go to such activities as communicating with members, bargaining and other job-related representation.

Business interests are less likely to notice the impact of that provision because they receive most of their political funds through executive contributions or by tapping company treasuries. But the set-it-and-forget-it payroll collection method has been a union fundraising staple for decades.

Unions aren’t required to publicly disclose their collections or budgets, but public payroll figures provide a window into the hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in the Proposition 32 battle.

State payroll data show that 75 percent of unionized state workers paid full dues in December 2011, the latest monthly information available. All but a handful of the rest opted to pay “fair share” fees that fund the nonpolitical benefits of union representation, such as contract negotiations. The figures don’t include California’s university system employees.

Between dues and fees in December, unions representing roughly 170,000 state workers received $10.5 million for the month. Annually, that could amount to $126 million. About half went to the state’s largest labor group, Service Employees International Union Local 1000.

It’s not clear how much of that money was earmarked for politics, but if voters pass Proposition 32, all of it would be out of bounds for political activities.

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