For the third time since 1998, California voters face a ballot initiative that would rein in special-interest political spending in the state. Proposition 32, which will appear on the November general-election ballot, would ban unions and most corporations from making direct contributions to state and local candidates. The measure would also bar government contractors from contributing to political campaigns. The most significant provision, though—the one giving public-employee unions, especially the California Teachers Association, fits—would prohibit corporations, unions, and government employers from deducting money from workers’ paychecks to use for political purposes.

Corporations, which have other means of acquiring political money, don’t deduct nearly as much money for politics as unions do. Only about 800 companies in the United States use voluntary deductions to fund corporate PACs; most political donations come from company executives. By contrast, payroll deductions are the unions’ bread and butter. Every public-employee union in the state deducts money from members’ paychecks alongside the withholding for federal and state income taxes. Right now, the only way an employee can recoup the political portion of these dues is to “resign” from the union and ask for a rebate—an onerous process. Prop. 32 would turn the tables on union political fundraising, and so the unions have invested heavily in defeating it.

So far, Prop. 32 opponents have outraised supporters by roughly five-to-one. As of September 24, the Prop. 32 campaign had raised about $9 million, while the opposition collected $41.3 million. Nearly $17 million of that total came directly from the CTA.

Earlier ballot measures similar to Prop. 32 have failed. In 1998, Prop. 226, the first “paycheck-protection” initiative, would have required all employers and labor organizations to obtain a member’s permission on a yearly basis before withholding wages or using union dues or fees for political activities. Correctly perceiving the initiative as a threat to their hegemony, the unions spent more than $24.8 million opposing it. The “Yes on 226” side could only muster $6.4 million, and the measure lost, 53.2 percent to 46.8 percent. Paycheck protection made a comeback in 2005 with Prop. 75, which sought to ban “the use by public employee labor organizations of public employee dues or fees for political contributions except with the prior consent of individual public employees each year on a specified written form.” Once again, opposition forces overwhelmed proponents, with the CTA contributing $12.1 million to the “No on Prop. 75” campaign’s $54.1 million war chest, while the “Yes” campaign barely raised $5.8 million. The initiative lost by the nearly identical margin of 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent.

Seven years later, we’re at it again. Prop. 32 goes further than its predecessors in simply banning paycheck deductions for political purposes, period—no fuss over employees’ consent this time. Of course, employees could give to a candidate or political-action committee via a direct deduction from their own bank accounts if they so choose. But public-employee unions know well what happens when employees are given a choice. In 2001, Utah’s state legislature passed the Voluntary Contributions Act, which “banned public agencies from diverting employee wages to political entities” and requiring “public sector unions to collect funds through voluntary member contributions.” Within a year, the Utah Education Association saw the rate of contributing members to the union’s PAC plunge from 68 percent to 6.8 percent. In 1997, Idaho passed legislation requiring public-employee union PACs to get written consent from members every year before making automatic payroll deductions. The proportion of contributing members dropped 75 percent soon after the law took effect.

How do teachers’ unions justify automatic deductions? Bob Chanin, then-general counsel of the National Education Association, explained it in 1978: “It is well-recognized that if you take away the mechanism of payroll deduction you won’t collect a penny from these people, and it has nothing to do with voluntary or involuntary. I think it has a lot to do with the nature of the beast, and the beasts who are our teachers. . . [They] simply don’t come up with the money regardless of the purpose.” What Chanin seemed to be saying is that teachers are too greedy, lazy, or unenlightened to know what’s good for them, so the union leadership should take members’ money and spend it as they see fit.

And how do the unions spend their members’ dues? According to the California Fair Practices Commission, from 2000 through 2009 the CTA doled out $211.8 million on candidates, ballot measures, and a fearsome lobbying operation in Sacramento. Another public-employee union, the California State Council of Service Employees, laid out $107.5 million in political expenditures during the same period. Of the $286.6 million lobbying groups spent in 2011 trying to influence legislation, the CTA spent the most ($6.5 million). And it’s no secret which direction teachers’ union money flows. According to Follow the Money, between 2003 and 2012, the CTA contributed more than $15 million to Democrats and just $92,700 to Republicans. That works out to 99.4 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively. No polling data exists on how California’s teachers break down politically, but it’s safe to assume that it’s nowhere near as one-sided as their union’s spending suggests. (Nationally, the political breakdown for teachers is 40 percent Democrat, 30 percent Republican, and 30 percent unaffiliated.)

How is a system fair in which union members’ dues flow, without their consent, to candidates and campaigns whose views they and other taxpayers may not share? And why should a worker have to take the initiative to avoid contributing to political causes deemed worthy by his union bosses? “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves,” Thomas Jefferson once declared, “is sinful and tyrannical.” Public-employee unions are the living embodiment of this practice.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next