Why Not Hit Corporate Bucks Along With Union Dues?

It was bound to happen.
For months, big business interests have been chortling over the
presence on the November 8 ballot of an idea they’ve pushed for
many years: forcing labor unions to get permission from members
before their dues can be used for political causes.
It was bound to happen.

For months, big business interests have been chortling over the presence on the November 8 ballot of an idea they’ve pushed for many years: forcing labor unions to get permission from members before their dues can be used for political causes.

True, the measure affects only public employee unions, but these are precisely the ones whose members have the most at stake in public policy decisions.

Did business really expect the unions to absorb an attack they believe threatens their fundamental interests without fighting back?

Now they are fighting indeed, circulating an initiative petition of their own that takes aim squarely at political contributions from the very sort of corporations behind the so-called “paycheck protection” measure on the ballot as Proposition 75.

The sad thing for voters in this picture is that since fundamental fairness in politics requires a level playing field, they should have the opportunity to impose restrictions on both union and corporate donations, or to reject such rules, on the same ballot, maybe even in the same initiative.

Because the anti-union measure appears in November and the anti-corporate one can’t appear until next June, voters will be able to restrict only one side for the time being, giving corporate political donors a big advantage for at least a few months. If the anti-union measure should pass, corporations could dump unlimited funds into a drive against any plan to limit their contributions, while union political funding would likely be lowered.

The unions’ proposition – they call it the “Corporate Political Accountability Act” – applies the same concept to big business that the corporations seek to force on unions. The principle behind it: if it’s immoral and should be illegal for unions to use members’ dues for purposes some members don’t like, the same is true for corporations and their shareholders.

If unions must get permission for political use of dues every year, why not make corporations ask their stockholders?

With those thoughts in mind, the union measure would force any corporations making political donations in California to provide yearly reports to shareholders listing all their political donations and spending of the previous year.

Shareholders would vote on the companies’ political spending plans for the next year, with majority approval required before anything could be spent. And if such a budget won approval on a 55-45 percent vote, then the spending plan would have to be pared down to 55 percent of what was asked, in keeping with the notion that funds should only come from those who approve their use.

This concept is almost a mirror image of what the business community is now trying to impose on unions. For if only 45 percent of union members okay spending their money on politics, a union would essentially have to cut its spending by 55 percent.

There are, of course, ways for both unions and corporations to get around these kinds of rules, not to mention the lawsuits sure to ensue if either proposal wins passage. (Voters in 1998 rejected a plan similar to Proposition 75, but by only a relatively narrow 53-47 percent margin.)

If California unions find their direct spending on politics limited, they could probably increase their contributions both to issues campaigns and to national unions, which in turn could dump money from other sources into California campaigns. If corporate donations are limited, there would still be nothing in California law to prohibit corporate executives from giving as much as they like.

And nothing to prevent companies from increasing executive salaries by amounts matching or exceeding what they give to the companies’ pet political causes.

Yes, both these potential tactics would be transparent end runs around the proposed new laws and would surely be challenged in court. But it would take years for that to play out, with plenty of massive spending in the meantime.

There’s little doubt about the distortions both corporate money and union donations bring to California public affairs, where sweetheart deals for contributing companies and big contracts for donating unions are legend.

And yet, rendering the political playing field uneven would be far worse, allowing one side to dominate at the expense of the other. In an ideal world, both ideas would be on the same ballot where they could be decided simultaneously.

But things are not ideal. Which means voters would be wise to at least keep things fair by rejecting Proposition 75 in November and then doing the same to the anti-corporate measure whenever it comes up for a vote.

Elias is author of the book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” in an updated third edition. His email address is [email protected]

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