Washington, 2 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- National political leaders are anxiously awaiting results of an election in the Pacific Coast state of California today that may have a dramatic effect on the way political parties finance election campaigns.
California is just one state of 50, but it is the most populous and it frequently sets political and social trends followed by other states and even the national government.
The issue that has caught the attention of the two dominant political parties -- the Democrat and the Republican -- and the leaders of the country's biggest labor unions as well is a proposal that would force unions to get written permission from individual members before using dues money for political activities.
"Dues" is money paid by a union member to union headquarters for the support of union activities on the member's behalf, including donations to political candidates. Dues are usually a percentage of an employee's salary automatically deducted by the employer and sent directly to the union.
For unions such as the Teamsters -- with nearly two million members -- or the United Auto Workers, which has more than one million members, dues bring in tens of millions of dollars annually.
While individual union members might vote Republican, organized labor at the national level has historically supported the Democratic Party and its candidates. Unions, however, are no longer as powerful as they once were. U.S. government statistics say only one out of every six workers in the U.S. belongs to a union. U.S. President Bill Clinton may be a Democrat, but both houses of the U.S. Congress have been controlled by the Republican Party since 1994.
Organized labor was the Democrat's largest single donor in the 1996 general election, donating about 120 million dollars.
The California ballot proposal is mainly the work of a man named Grover Norquist, the head of an organization called Americans for Tax Reform. He is a close political ally of the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia). Norquist contends that unions, through their donations, exercise too much political power. He says unions have been able to use their influence to block legislation supported by Republicans.
The union dues proposal is what is known as a citizens' initiative. It is a form of direct democracy employed when an elected legislature either cannot or will not make a decision on an issue. Voters themselves decide.
Generally, the rules for citizen initiatives require a sponsoring group to obtain a set number of signatures from registered voters to have their issue placed on the state ballot. Only 24 of the 50 states permit citizen initiatives, and there is no provision in the U.S. Constitution for citizen initiatives at the national level.
Initiatives are, however, very popular in California. They have become a fixture of the state's politics over the past 20 years, starting with a ballot proposal in 1978 that cut taxes.
Initiatives are intended to eliminate the influence of special interests on legislators. However, critics of the direct democracy movement say political decision-making is still captive to big money that can only come from special interest groups.
On Monday, the Los Angeles Times reported that organized labor had spent more than $15 million in the campaign to defeat the dues proposal. Labor spending appeared to be paying off. Public opinion polls showed that support for the proposal had fallen below 50 percent after earlier surveys showed the proposal winning by more than a two to one margin.
The Times also said California Governor Pete Wilson, a Republican, endorses the union dues proposal and has reportedly made more than one million dollars from his political organization available to the proposal's supporters.
California often serves as a laboratory for political ideas, and if the union dues proposal succeeds, national Republican leaders are prepared to adapt the proposal for their campaign to keep Democrats from regaining control of the Congress in the general elections in November.
Republican leaders in Congress have a proposed federal law to restrict the use of dues money by a union drafted and ready for debate. They plan to wait for results from California before deciding what to do with their proposal. It could come up for debate this summer. President Clinton has promised to veto any measure to limit union power over members' dues.
However, four other states have already approved some curbs on union dues and ten other states are considering measures to limit spending with union dues.