God Hate Unions?
By Hans Johnson
George W. Bush - eager for a battle that will excite his conservative base - has made a "paycheck protection" plan aimed at crippling labor unions a top priority in reforming federal campaign-finance laws. At the same time, despite a pair of high-profile defeats two years ago, initiatives to restrict unions' political activity may reappear on ballots in Oregon and Colorado this fall.
Yet unlike 1998, this election season finds unions prepared for the fight. Labor leaders pledge to turn out their members in unprecedented numbers and sweep pro-labor candidates to victory in state and national races. "We learned a lot from the last campaign," says Tim Nesbitt, president of the state AFL-CIO in Oregon, where voters narrowly rejected an anti-union drive two years ago.
In the same election, voters approved a labor-backed measure to safeguard payroll deductions. But that issue remains tied up in litigation, leaving the door open for another attack by union opponents. Their new proposal, Initiative 25, is modeled on California's ill-fated 1998 initiative known as Prop 226, which would have forced unions to obtain annual written approval from members in order to funnel a portion of their dues money into lobbying and candidate donations. According to the Oregon Secretary of State's office, petitioners for Initiative 25 have already gathered most of the 89,000 signatures needed to make the July 7 deadline and qualify the proposal for November's ballot.
Both the substance of the measure, which unions say unfairly sidelines them from the democratic process, and the reputations of its sponsors are likely to boost the turnout of labor households this fall. Backers of Initiative 25 range from anti-tax gadfly Bill Sizemore to the local offshoot of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition. The Coalition has made no secret of its foray into anti-union politics, sinking money into the previous ill-fated bid in Oregon that Sizemore spearheaded.
This year, both Sizemore and Lou Beres, the Coalition's state executive director, are upping the ante. In March, the Northwest Labor Press obtained a copy of a Coalition fundraising letter by Beres revealing that initiative sponsors will pay the Coalition for signatures gained by its members on ballot-qualification petitions. Beres urges members to sign the petitions and lashes out at "big labor" for allegedly "backing the effort to normalize homosexuality." "God can give us the victory," Beres writes, "but we must do the fighting."
Divine help may be necessary if paycheck-protection sponsors are to overcome labor's growing expertise in discrediting them and defeating their measures at the polls. "It's like I recently told the GOP leaders in the legislature," says Robert Greene, president of the state AFL-CIO in Colorado, where a similar paycheck-protection question might appear on the fall ballot. "I'm glad you didn't do it two years ago. But this year we're ready." Greene says his group's 134,000 members are "fired up" at the prospect of a ballot battle, which is giving a lift to voter registration drives by Colorado unions. One local has already registered more than 2,000 people, he says.
As in Oregon, the anti-labor ballot drive in Colorado reflects what Greene calls a "marriage of convenience" between business interests, like the National Right to Work Committee, and the religious right. Two legislators involved in the bid, state Rep. Ron May and Senate President Ray Powers, both hail from Colorado Springs, the conservative enclave that is home to religious-right mogul James Dobson of Focus on the Family, a paycheck-protection proponent.
Though the expense of fighting these ballot measures might siphon some resources from labor-backed candidates, unions are confident that the effort will pay dividends with a larger, livelier membership. That's exactly what happened when GOP leaders in Nevada launched a paycheck protection proposal in Nevada in 1998. The bid roused union members to defend their interests in state politics, a trend that shows no sign of abating two years later. "It was a great organizing tool," says Maggie Carlton, a Las Vegas waitress and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union member, who later that year won a seat in the state Senate. "Sometimes the bogeyman is the best thing you can have."