Revolutionary Referenda

Article excerpt

It was a gutter fight. A $45 million one, but a gutter fight nonetheless. It was California's Proposition 226, the "union paycheck protection" measure that would have forced union leaders to get approval from their members before spending their money on politics.

Proponents of 226--hoping to parlay a Golden State victory into a national movement--accused organized labor of spreading vicious lies about the measure's impact. They claimed "union bosses" were using cynical, corrupt "scare tactics" to kill an otherwise popular idea.

They even cited one unionized worker as being "outraged--and embarrassed" by the deluge of deliberate misinformation put forth by the anti-226 campaign, asking in resentment, "And these labor yahoos still claim to represent me?"

Labor, on the other hand, charged that the proposition was a sinister ruse by right-wing extremists to shut down the AFL-CIO as a political force. Encapsulating the anti-226 argument was Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who called the initiative "a partisan attempt to trick Californians into giving more power to the Republican Party, the radical right, and special interests who do not care about working people."

Said Mellman: "Business already outspends labor by 11 to 1 in politics, and Republicans outspent Democrats last [election] cycle by $200 million. We should be trying to level the playing field, not tilt it more heavily to special interests and the Republicans."


In these days of poll-tested political posturing, these are unusually tough words. That's because, according to both sides, the stakes were so high.

Frank Ory, a coauthor of the initiative, was quoted as claiming that 226's passage would "tilt" the political balance of power because "40 percent of union members are Republican and 50 percent are Democrat and 10 percent don't care ... yet 97 percent of all union dollars in California either go to Democrats or liberal causes."

On the anti side, AFL-CIO official Dave Sickler said, "[Its] ultimate impact would be to take unions and union members out of politics."

Despite all this, much of the corporate community sat out the fight, while unions--and a host of their allies that included prominent Democrats and a variety of nonprofit groups--jumped in head-first. Supposedly, many corporate executives refused to help the pro-226 cause because of an "unwritten" deal they had with the union leadership that went something like: If you don't go afar our tax breaks, we won't go after your political contributions.

Some have estimated that labor and its Democratic Party allies poured nearly $40 million into a full-blown campaign that included expensive ads, massive phone banks, targeted direct-mail drops, and a large get-out-the-vote grassroots effort. The imbalance of spending--proponents say they spent about $5 million--gives credence to the labor-management "deal" theory.

Though 226 was once approved by overwhelming percentages of voters who were polled, Californians defeated it on June 2 by 6 percentage points.

Proposition 226 wasn't the only controversial measure on California's ballot this year. Another that received considerable national attention was Proposition 227, which was designed to end bilingual education for schoolchildren.

Despite diverse opposition from the political Establishment--President Clinton, Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Lungren, and all three major Democratic candidates for governor opposed it--it won anyway, with a solid 61 percent favorable vote.

These two campaigns, with different endings, tell an important story about initiative and referendum in the modern media-and-information age. They also caused many observers to again wonder: Is this campaign style warfare any way to pass laws? Some would answer no. Still, adherents of "direct democracy" say it's a better, more open process than just letting the politicians decide in a back room. …