The wealthy are at it again, trying to bust the few remaining large unions in California by pushing an initiative on November ballot that would prevent unions from using dues collected from payroll deductions on political campaigns. The unions are calling the initiative the Corporate Power Grab Initiative (AKA the Payroll Deception Act) and are expected to spend well over $20 million to defeat the law.
The initiative would limit unions’ ability to lobby legislators and fight the corporations on the political field. It bans any direct contribution by unions to local candidates and prohibits unions from using dues collected through payroll deductions on ballot measures or candidates. Corporations, of course, can continue to spend unlimited amounts as they see fit. It would do nothing, however, to increase workers’ income, as the money saved on politics would remain in the unions’ coffers.
The bill is clearly designed to increase the political power of the wealthy and reduce that of unions. However, as stated in one of the anti-Corporate Power Grab fliers produced by the CTA, corporations already outspend labor unions 15 to 1. So even if this bill is defeated, the playing field is so far from level that working people don’t have a chance in the political arena anyway. The politicians are all members of the ruling elite. Even without the millions they collect in corporate and superpac donations they’re already aligned with corporate interests and legislate to maximize profits for themselves and their wealthy buddies.
The election of Jerry Brown ought to be proof of this. CTA and other unions spent millions to get him elected and what have we gotten in return—a CTA lobbyist on the state school board?
Teachers are still getting laid off, while Brown has quietly been going after our pensions. His tax initiative, even his new modified version, only provides a few billion extra per year, much of which will go to paying off debts. It does nothing to restore the $21 billion looted from public education over the past three years, let alone raise revenue sufficiently to adequately fund education, lower class sizes, increase wages, restore nurses and librarians, or repair and renovate schools.
Likewise, while the above video suggests that California has a pro-labor legislature that has been able to “hold the line,” what we have seen is mass layoffs of public sector workers and downsizing of schools, attacks by the legislature and governor on pensions, the slashing of programs for the poor, elderly and disabled, a gutting of higher education and the continuation of extremely low tax rates for the wealthy.
Yes, the Corporate Power Grab initiative is an attack on unions, but working people ought to ask how much the CTA and other public sector unions are throwing at this campaign and if this is really the best use of union resources. Considering that unions will never have the wealth to really go toe to toe with corporations and that the legislators share common interests with the bosses and CEOs anyway, politics really is a losing game for working people. Perhaps the money would be more effectively spent on organizing campaigns and mobilizing union members to take concerted job actions, like a general strike.
Unions have all but given up the strike as a means for achieving their goals, yet it is the most powerful weapon they have, far more powerful than lobbying and campaign contributions, especially when competing against the bottomless bank accounts of the ruling class. Other kinds of job actions, mass protests, advertising campaigns and boycotts can also be used, but ultimately, working people must go on the offensive, be proactive and demand what they deserve, rather than always being on the defensive or fighting to move one step forward each time they get pushed two steps back.
Many of the unions (including CTA and the firefighters union) are arguing that the Corporate Power Grab is an attack on collective bargaining, which is a good argument to make if you really want to rally the troops. But it isn’t true. The initiative goes after political rights, specifically how unions can raise cash to spend on political campaigns. It says nothing about collective bargaining.
It is true that the bosses would like unions to go away completely and they know that abolishing collective bargaining would get them pretty close. It is also true that without Big Labor’s to compete with, the wealthy would have an easier time getting anti-labor politicians elected.
But it is a significant jump to equate this initiative with the demise of unions. Throughout history, workers have successfully acted collectively without collective bargaining or even the legal right to strike. All that is needed is good organizing and the willingness to go on strike or engage in other forms of direct action. Should this initiative pass, the CTA and other public sector unions will retain their collective bargaining rights. They will also retain their right to strike, organize and buy advertisements to promote their cause, weapons that can be used to defend collective bargaining and even fight for gains in working conditions and compensation.
Organizing and coordinating strikes are not as easy, comfortable and plush as wining and dining politicians. The automatic dues check off, which funnels revenue directly to the unions from our paychecks, facilitates this cushy relationship with the corporate and political world for the union leadership, while alienating them from the needs and concerns of the rank and file. It ensures a steady flow of cash that supports their six-figure salaries, while insulating them from the day to day realities of being in the classroom. It discourages them from actually listening to rank and file members and acting to support their expressed needs.
In the old days, union reps came by and collected dues from each member by hand. It gave them an opportunity to organize, to check in with members, see if there were any complaints or grievances or suggestions for how the union could do things better. It also gave members the chance to say “screw you” if they felt the union was taking them for granted, forcing union leaders to be more accountable to members. In fact, if the union wanted angry members’ money, an organizer or steward would have to go meet with them, listen to their grievances, and resolve them to their satisfaction before they would start paying up.
Automatic dues check off is a much easier way to get the money quickly and it ensures that dues are collected from everyone, even the pissed off members. This has made big unions flush with resources that allow them to provide large salaries for their leaders and to lavish money on politicians who they think might do their bidding. It has encouraged the bureaucracies to grow larger and less accountable to members.
The ruling elite would love the automatic dues check off to disappear, as it would make it much more difficult for unions to support candidates who are less business friendly. It was one of the goals of Gov. Walker’s union-busting legislation in Wisconsin. It was also the preservation of the automatic dues check off that most concerned the leaders of Wisconsin’s unions, who ended up giving away significant pay and benefits concessions, without their members’ approval, in hopes of saving it.
California’s public sector unions are now engaging in a similar battle. The preservation of the automatic dues check off seems to be their main goal, rather than the improvement of their members working conditions and compensation.
Ironically, if the same energy and resources they are spending fighting this battle had been devoted to educating, organizing and mobilizing their members over the past ten years, promoting class consciousness and militancy, they wouldn’t need a slick campaign now. Teachers would be ready, able and willing to take job actions at the drop of a hat in order to achieve their goals, whether it is to defend their unions’ fundraising capabilities or to increase taxes on the rich in order to adequately fund education.