Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, May 1998
Voting can sometimes produce twisted outcomes, even when it takes the form of a plebiscite, or direct vote on an issue. People Magazine recently asked their readers to pick the ten most beautiful people, and wound up with Hank the Angry, Drunken Dwarf in first place.
The magazine declined to put Hank on the cover, and so from their point of view, there was no harm done. But California's voter initiatives become law, and often set a precedent for the rest of the country. So there will be real damage when powerful monied alliances are able to convince people to vote against their own best interests.
That could happen on June 2 when Proposition 226 goes before the voters. It would require that unions get written permission from their members in order to use dues money for contributions to political campaigns or ballot initiatives. In a very clever trick aimed at snaring unsuspecting voters in the booth, it is also worded to prohibit foreign contributions to California ballot initiatives-- which are already illegal under current law.
Although the law is aimed at union dues, it may also apply to other payroll deductions such as those that go to health insurance companies or non-profit organizations. This would create a royal pain for employers, and has caused many of them, as well as Business Week and a number of California newspapers, to oppose the initiative.
The initiative is the brainchild of the organized Right, and has attracted out of state contributions from people like Richard Mellon Scaife, the Pennsylvania billionaire whom Newt Gingrich calls "the conservative movement's most valuable asset." Not content with the 11-to-1 advantage that corporations now enjoy over unions in political campaign contributions, these wealthy individuals and companies seek to further tilt the playing field.
And why not? This is a time when our nation's largest and most successful anti-poverty program-- Social Security-- faces the threat of privatization. HMO's, insurance companies, and other health care conglomerates have already made a fortune privatizing public hospitals, soaking (and sometimes bilking) Medicare, and stiffing patients. The share of corporate profits in national income has grown remarkably in recent years, and is at near record levels. And wages, for the majority of Americans, have yet to reach their 1989 (pre-recession) level, after seven years of economic growth.
So why not go for it all? Get the unions out of the picture, and who's going to stand in the way of further conquests? The sky's the limit.
Of course they don't exactly market the initiative that way. It is put forth as an effort to protect workers' paychecks (always a major concern of billionaires like Scaife) from unwanted deductions for political purposes.
It is not clear why unions should be singled out in this regard. Corporations make political contributions that their shareholders don't like. At least unions have a democratic structure, in which ordinary members who are not as rich as Bill Gates can participate and influence policy.
That's probably one of the reasons that unions are under attack in this initiative. As our political elections become more and more the property of the highest bidder, unions remain one of the few institutions in our society in which "one person, one vote" doesn't translate into "one thousand-dollar contribution, one vote."
If you think labor's voice in politics doesn't help you, take a look at Europe, where it is several times stronger than in America. Free college tuition, government paid or subsidized child care, paid maternity leave, and twice as much vacation time as we get here-- these are some of the common results of labor's influence. By contrast, our tax dollars support more military spending than most of the rest of the world combined-- and, thanks to one of the most successful corporate lobbying efforts in recent history, will finance the arms exports necessary for the unnecessary expansion of NATO. We also get the dubious distinction of being the only industrialized country, outside of South Africa, that does not provide health insurance for its citizens. And we can boast the highest paid corporate executives in the world.
The people who took to the Internet to vote for Hank had a point to their joke: it was a gesture of rebellion against the stultifying conformity that accompanies corporate determination of our aesthetics, through mass marketing and advertising. But those who are fooled into "rebelling" against labor's already limited political participation will find that the joke is on them. If this initiative passes, it will leave them even more under the thumb of corporate America, and with fewer avenues to resist the growing trend of "putting people last."
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of the forthcoming book Failed: What the "Experts" Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).