Calif. Unions, Schwarzenegger Battle over Prop. 75

California's Proposition 75, the so-called "Paycheck Protection" initiative, would require unions to get a worker's written permission before spending union dues on political contests. Tamara Keith of member station KPCC reports on the fight between state public employee unions and the ballot initiative's chief backer, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

There's a special election next Tuesday here in California where voters will decide on several ballot initiatives. One of them is the controversial Proposition 75, the so-called Paycheck Protection Initiative. It would require public sector unions to get their members' permission before using their dues for political purposes. Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger backs the proposition, but that does not mean it'll pass. From member station KPCC, Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH reporting:

Jim Parenti(ph) is a state agriculture inspector who looks for invasive pests hitching rides on airplanes coming from the East Coast. He's also a member of the California State Employees Association union, and he supports Proposition 75. Parenti says he frequently disagrees with his union's political activities.

Mr. JIM PARENTI (California State Employees Association Union Member): The union leadership is exercising my First Amendment rights on my behalf without asking me. How is that right?

KEITH: The folks behind Proposition 75 say people like Jim Parenti are the reason their initiative is needed. They say union leaders in the public sector should have to ask their members individually each year if they want their dues money to be spent on politics. These unions represent teachers, firefighters, police officers and nurses, all of whom have emerged as such powerful critics of the governor that they've become a major roadblock to his political agenda. They've spent tens of millions of dollars to get their message out with TV ads like this one.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Man: So what's 75 really about? The Sacramento Bee calls it a simple power play restricting the voice of public workers but not Arnold's corporate donors. Put the brakes on Arnold's sneaky power play. Vote no on 75.

KEITH: Barbara Kerr, president of the California Teachers Association, says Prop 75 aims to silence public employee unions, making it hard for them to raise money and burying them in paperwork.

Ms. BARBARA KERR (President, California Teachers Association): It would make a bureaucratic nightmare, and that is what the proponents of Prop 75 want. They want us to be silent. They want to make it very, very hard and it isn't anything about protecting people.

KEITH: Union leaders argue that under current law, public employees are allowed to opt out of political spending, an option that 25 percent of state workers have already chosen. But backers of Prop 75 say that opting out isn't easy and the burden should be on the unions to ask members if they want to opt in. At a recent media-sponsored town-hall-style event, Governor Schwarzenegger defended the initiative.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): We're just saying get the permission first and then you can use it. We don't want to silence anyone like the TV ads are saying that we want to silence union members. That's the last thing we want to do. We want to help and protect the workers and we want to protect their paycheck.

KEITH: Whether or not the initiative's aim is to silence the unions, people on both sides agree that if it passes, the ability of unions to raise political money would be greatly diminished. As it stands now, almost all public employee union money in California goes to Democratic candidates and causes. So it could have a major impact on politics in Democrat-controlled Sacramento. Governor Schwarzenegger also hinted at that.

Gov. SCHWARZENEGGER: Some of these union bosses use that money and they use it to really put the squeeze on those legislators and make them make decisions based on what they think is best rather than what the legislators think is best. And I think that the people of California have sent the legislators to Sacramento to represent the people, not to represent the unions.

KEITH: Many believe that if Proposition 75 passes it could have ripples all over the country. The initiative is being watched closely by political operatives from both parties and by conservative activists who are looking to California to start a paycheck protection movement nationwide. That's something union leaders are very concerned about. Art Pulaski is the secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation.

Mr. ART PULASKI (California Labor Federation): If it happens in California, it's likely to happen across the country. They want to start it here because Arnold has a lot of money and he has a lot of charisma and they hope that he can win it here so they can win it elsewhere.

KEITH: But whether it can win here in California remains an open question. Over the summer the initiative had a double-digit lead in the polls. Today it's in a dead heat, in large part, because of the union money spent to defeat it. For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith in Sacramento.

BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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