Politics & Policy

Union Dues, Union Don’Ts

A cop looks at California's Proposition 75.

Behold the caprices of the California electorate.

Two years ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger harnessed a cascading wave of voter dissatisfaction and swept predecessor Gray Davis from the California governor’s office. Davis had been reelected to a second term only a year earlier, but when he bungled the state’s energy crisis and refused to lift a finger to halt runaway spending, the torch-and-pitchfork crowd followed Schwarzenegger right to the steps of the state capitol and sent Davis packing. In the months following the recall, Schwarzenegger strode triumphantly up and down the state and across the country, bringing his unique brand of star power to the effort to reform California politics. Schwarzenegger’s approval ratings were sky-high. He was a hero, the dashing leading man who would leap into the cab of the careening locomotive and bring it to a halt in the–ta da!–nick of time.

Now it is Schwarzenegger who hears the mob at the gates. Next Tuesday, Californians will go to the polls in a special election and decide the fate of several initiatives, most of which are intended to weaken the grip long held by Democrats on the state’s political machinery. To the governor’s dismay, recent polling shows most if not all of these initiatives headed for defeat. Among them is Proposition 75, which would require labor unions representing public employees (like me) to obtain annual written consent before using any portion of a member’s dues for political purposes.

As one might expect, California’s public employee unions have launched a vigorous counterattack, filling the airwaves with the sort of repetitive, annoying ads that make one wish only for the election to be over, regardless of the outcome. Schwarzenegger and his “wealthy conservative” cronies, say these ads, are trying to silence union members and thwart the very spirit of American democracy. Further, the ads suggest, Schwarzenegger doesn’t like cops, firefighters, nurses, or teachers. In the days before the election I expect to see ads showing the governor kicking a puppy.

For me, Proposition 75 presents a dilemma. As a dues-paying member of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents rank-and-file officers, I recognize that much of the resistance to Proposition 75 originated in Schwarzenegger’s earlier ham-fisted attempt to reform the state’s public pension system. Under the proposal, survivor benefits for the families of California police officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty would have been drastically reduced, a provision that invited outrage from police and firefighter unions and an accompanying P.R. campaign that effectively killed it. Schwarzenegger quietly shelved the proposal earlier this year, but Proposition 75 is clearly aimed at the checkbooks of the unions that stood in his way. If the initiative succeeds, we can expect Schwarzenegger to take another run at the pension issue.

And as a conservative, I’m troubled by the intrusion of the state into the internal workings of voluntary organizations. The Protective League’s officers are elected by the membership, and if the members muster enough votes they can enact whatever changes to the League’s operations they wish. Furthermore, League members already have the option to opt out of political spending, though only 23 have actually done so.

But while I objected to some aspects of Schwarzenegger’s pension-reform efforts, I find equal offense in the campaign against Proposition 75. In a recent e-mail message to the membership, Protective League President Bob Baker called the initiative “a way for the governor and his supporters to shut down our ability to get our voices heard in Sacramento.” It seems obvious that the reason Baker is so exercised over Proposition 75 is that he knows a significant percentage of the League’s members will elect to hang on to their money if the question is put to them each year.

It’s rather like income tax withholding: You get your paycheck every other week or so and you accustom yourself to seeing only the figure in the “take-home” box, for to contemplate the taxes withheld and how that money is spent would only bring on depression, lack of sleep, and substance abuse. Now imagine if no taxes were withheld, that instead on each April 15th you had to take pen in quivering hand and somehow hold it steadily enough to write that enormous check to the Internal Revenue Service. Why, the barricades would be up in no time at all.

And so it is with my union dues. One percent of my salary is deducted from each paycheck and deposited into the coffers of the Police Protective League, with $2 of it going to the League’s political action committee. This gives the PAC an annual budget of around $433,000, and neither I nor any cop of my acquaintance has the vaguest idea of how even a dime of it is spent. What I gather from Baker’s dire warnings is that if I were to find out I would be less likely to ante up my 52 bucks next year.

In every election cycle the Protective League issues its candidate endorsements, though it would be a mistake to assume that such an endorsement reflects the views of the typical Los Angeles police officer. Los Angeles is a blue city in a blue state, but the only thing blue about the typical cop is his uniform. The League admits that in most cases it endorses the candidate with the best chance of winning, and unfortunately in California–Schwarzenegger’s recall victory notwithstanding–that candidate is usually a Democrat. (The League played it safe and made no endorsement in the recall, though it previously endorsed Gray Davis over both of his Republican opponents. You’d be lucky to find 100 cops in the entire state who voted for him.)

So, with objections to be found on both sides of the debate, how is a cop to vote? One system I’ve employed in previous elections is to check the endorsements in the Los Angeles Times and vote the opposite way. Incredibly, the Times came out in favor of Proposition 75, causing me to rethink this strategy. But not long ago, as I was teetering on the fence, I was given a sign as clear and undeniable as finding a burning bush in my living room: Both Howard Dean and John Kerry came to California to campaign against Proposition 75.

I’ll be voting for it.

Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.


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