It's Time to Retire “Paycheck Protection”

The defeat of Prop 32 should put to rest a problematic idea.

There's a long and mostly noble tradition with ballot initiatives: if at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Many successful ballot initiatives were the product of failed ballot initiatives. Prop 13 was passed after three previously failed attempts to limit property taxes by ballot initiatives. Redistricting reform failed five times before it was approved by voters.

So the backers of Prop 32, the unsuccessful initiative that sought to limit the ability of unions to collect money from members for political purposes, might be tempted to try again.

They should resist that temptation.

Prop 32 was the third loss -- in less than 15 years -- for the idea of limiting union political influence by limiting dues. Prop 32 also included limits on corporation's abilities to conduct politics, but the impact of those changes was generally believed to be far less than that on unions.

Voters turned back previous unions dues measures, also known as "paycheck protection" because they limit the ability to draw money out of members paychecks, in 1998 and 2005.

There is a real problem with the power of public employee unions -- and the conflict of interest inherent when government unions bargain with politicians the unions themselves put in office. But going after their money is not a smart way to deal with this -- politically, legally, or as a policy matter.

Politically, it's an uphill battle. Constitutionally, limiting the ability of any entity to engage in politics is problematic. And as a policy matter, unions are an essential (if maddening) counterpoint to wealthy business interests and individuals who otherwise would find it too easy to get their way.

What's a better approach? Instead of weakening unions, those worried about their power should spend their money building up institutions that can counter their power. Such institutions include political parties, civic groups and media organizations; many of these institutions have declined in resources and reach, and could use the boost.

By building up institutions that can provide a voice for people who don't have much power, we could not only counter self-dealing unions but also diminish the role of public employee unions as funders for certain causes.

Creating that kind of different civil context would make it much easier to do something about the conflict of interest posed by such unions.

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