Monday, March 5, 2012




When conservative politicians say “paycheck protection,” they’re really talking about protecting their own positions and paychecks, not those of any group of workers.

That’s partly because paycheck protection, as embodied in an initiative that has just qualified for November’s ballot, would not cause anyone’s paycheck to expand. Rather, it would prevent unions from using payroll-deducted dues for political contributions.

Also, union money usually flows to liberal Democrats, so the Republican politicians backing this measure are really out to make things easier for themselves, to ensure their own job security.

As it now stands, unions must get written permission from members at the time they join before using their dues for anything political. The new measure would force unions to seek member permission yearly, with sponsors clearly hoping many unionists would refuse. Not likely.

The one key difference between this year’s version of paycheck protection and past failed ones is that the new edition bans contributions to candidate-controlled committees from labor unions, corporations and some contractors doing business with the state. It does nothing to their ability to contribute millions to the supposedly independent political committees that lately have spent much more than candidates themselves.

So this proposal expands a bit on measures attempted by then-Gov. George Deukmejian in 1988 and again in 2005 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both times the measures failed by wide margins, in part because of firm union opposition.

But there’s a still fundamental unfairness to what the new proposition, like its forebears, seeks to do: It hits at only one side of the campaign donation conundrum. While unions would have to go to their members yearly for permission to use dues money, corporations have no such restrictions.

There is no doubt campaign donations and the quid pro quos exacted by donors of all kinds are one of the root problems in American politics. The problem grew worse two years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision ruled illegal attempts to restrain political donations from corporations, pronouncing them people in the sight of the law.

But there was nothing to prevent sponsors of the new measure from making it truly fair, balancing restrictions on union use of dues with restraints on how corporations can spend profits that otherwise might end up as dividends going to shareholders.

Just as this measure, like the two that went before, seeks to let union members decide annually how their money can be spent, why not give the same right to corporate shareholders? Make corporations poll their ownership each year on whether they should make political contributions, or how much, just as they now send out proxy sheets for shareholders to vote yea or nay on proposed corporate board members and changes to corporate charters. Then you’d equalize matters and give huge numbers of citizens the ability to tamp down out-of-control campaign donations.

Without that sort of provision, the current initiative’s ban on contributions to candidate-controlled committees is meaningless, merely a cover for another blatant attempt to reduce funds for liberal candidates while letting contributions to conservatives continue unfettered.

All this probably has a better chance of passage today than in the two prior attempts because of rising public antipathy for public employee labor unions. That dislike easily morphs into blanket disapproval for all unions. Fully 41 percent of Californians said in one recent poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California that they dislike unions, the highest proportion ever in a major California survey on the subject.

So like Proposition 226 in 1988 and Proposition 75 in 2005, this measure will likely begin with a strong lead in the polls. Both of those had double-digit leads in early polls before going on to lose.

In both cases, the propositions’ one-sided nature led to their defeat. Despite an attempt at providing a slight fig leaf over same fundamental unfairness, this one is just as unbalanced. The only way to balance it would be to let corporate shareholders reduce political spending by companies in exact proportion to the number of shares they hold.

So one big question later this year will be whether Californians’ love of a level playing field once again outweighs their spite for unionized public employees, whose lot in life can look better that that of other workers as corporations make conditions more and more difficult for their own employees via layoffs and diminished pensions and benefits.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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