The Heritage Foundation

Backgrounder #1171

April 20, 1998

April 20, 1998 | Backgrounder on

California's Proposition 226: What It Means For Union Members andThier Family Budgets

On June 2, 1998, California voters will be asked to decide whether union workers who are required to pay dues as a condition of employment should have those dues used without their permission for political purposes. Ten years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Communications Workers v. Beck that such workers may not be required to pay dues beyond those necessary for collective bargaining purposes.1 Still, not only are many union members unaware of the Beck decision, but--as firsthand congressional testimony has demonstrated--those who do try to prevent any of their dues from being used to support political purposes that violate their beliefs frequently are stonewalled or intimidated by their unions.2

The referendum in California, known as Proposition 226, is designed to prevent this problem. Unions in California spend approximately $81 million of their dues for political purposes over a typical two-year election cycle.3 The referendum would require them to obtain members' written permission before they use any dues collected for political purposes. And it would prohibit employers from making automatic deductions from paychecks for political contributions or expenditures without the workers' annual written permission.

Thus, Proposition 226 would protect union members from being compelled to contribute to the propagation of ideas they do not support.4 Far from silencing them, the referendum would guarantee these workers the freedom of choice to decide what to do with their own hard-earned money--which is the birthright of all Americans.

California's Large Union Work Force

In California, over 2.2 million wage and salary workers belong to unions.5 Almost half (48.1 percent) these workers are employed by federal, state, or local government. Twenty percent are teachers, and 8.5 percent are firefighters or police. The remaining 51.9 percent work in the private sector. Many of these workers must pay union dues as a condition of employment.6 Together, public- and private-sector union members in California see approximately $880 million per year taken out of their paychecks for union dues.7 And unions spend as much as 4.6 percent of this amount, or $40.5 million, for political purposes.8

Passage of Proposition 226 would put more money back in the pockets of these union workers each year. For example, it would return:9

  • $4.2 million to some 230,000 teachers with annual earnings of $30,000;

  • $2.2 million to some 118,000 truck drivers earning only $19,000 a year;

  • $1.1 million to nearly 62,000 police officers with annual earnings of $37,000;

  • $1.6 million to 85,000 postal workers who earn $35,000 per year; and

  • $3.8 million to 204,000 mechanics and repairers earning $36,000 a year.

Some of these workers, of course, would choose to continue contributing to their unions. That is their right. Others would not. As one California teacher put it, "I'm a Democrat, but I wouldn't donate anything. I want the freedom to decide for myself what to do with my money."10 Freedom of choice appeals to the majority of Californians: As a recent San Francisco Examiner poll reports, 64 percent of likely voters support Proposition 226.11 And a January 1998 California field poll finds that 71 percent of the general public supports it.12 Furthermore, two-thirds of union households support Proposition 226.13

Despite broad support for ballot initiatives like Proposition 226 among the public and union members, union leaders continue to take money out of their members' paychecks to oppose even the collection of signatures to place referenda on the ballots. The California Teachers Association has pledged to spend $3 million to defeat Proposition 226 despite the fact that 70 percent of its members support the referendum.14 In Oregon, the board of directors for the Oregon Public Employees Union approved a $60 special dues assessment for each member in 1998--for a total of $1.4 million--to fund its "Fight Back in '98" campaign against a similar initiative in that state.15

At the March 1998 meeting of the Executive Council of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), union leaders voted to take another $13 million out of members' paychecks--$2.2 million from California alone--to spend on political purposes across the country in 1998.16 This amount nearly doubles the $15 million the AFL-CIO already had approved for political purposes in 1998, a congressional election year.17 And it does not include the tens of millions of dollars that individual unions will spend on politics in 1998, nor the hundreds of millions of in-kind contributions (such as phone banks and get-out-the-vote drives) that will go unreported.

Ending "Pay Up and Shut Up" Policies

Currently, workers who object to the use of their dues for political purposes usually must do so within a limited period each year. This means, for example, that Teamsters who objected to their union's decision to spend $195,000 on a campaign to legalize the use of marijuana in California may have to wait an entire year before exercising their right to receive a refund for the portion of their dues that went to this campaign.18 As one California worker testified before Congress:

I wrote the letters required by law, but somehow they kept getting lost.... I wrote several letters that according to the union official that I was dealing with were never received or were not worded properly.... I kept calling the union office, at least three or four additional times to find out the status of my request. Finally in desperation, I wrote another letter and had my husband drive to the San Diego Teachers' Union office, hand carry the letter and had a copy of the original letter dated and time stamped. That was the only way that I finally was able to exercise my right....19

With the passage of Proposition 226, unions no longer would be able to stonewall members in this manner, and workers would not be forced to spend their hard-earned money to try to stop their unions from spending any of their dues on objectionable political purposes.

In recent decades, organized labor's leaders decided to use billions of dollars in union dues for such purposes as encouraging the Boy Scouts of America to admit homosexuals and atheists, offering financial contributions to political groups that promote abortion, and opposing welfare reform.20 Workers who once formed the backbone of the labor movement in the United States now find themselves paying higher fees to unions that promote an agenda that is unconnected with workplace issues, not generally supported among rank-and-file union members, and clearly outside the mainstream of politics in the United States. And often, when members question their union leaders about such political spending, they are told just to pay up and shut up. As another California worker testified before Congress:

I usually was told the same thing from the union higher-ups, "If you don't like it, quit".... Whenever pressing about the union supporting something I didn't believe in, I was always treated like a jerk. I felt intimidated whenever I would ask union officials about the union funding certain parties.21

Proposition 226's up-front consent provision would improve union accountability to its membership and help restore workers' trust in the honesty and integrity of their unions.

Initiatives and Legislation in Other States

On March 20, 1998, Wyoming Governor Jim Geringer signed into law his state's "paycheck protection" bill; Idaho had enacted similar legislation in March 1997. In fact, legislation like Proposition 226 is pending in 26 state legislatures; and states like Nevada and Oregon are collecting signatures for ballot initiatives similar to Proposition 226.

In 1992, voters in Washington state passed a similar referendum called I-134 with the approval of 70 percent of voters. After passage, the number of the state's public employee union members who were willing to make political contributions to their union fell from over 40,000 to an astoundingly small 8222 --clearly demonstrating that the vast majority of workers want to determine how their paychecks and their union dues are spent.


Proposition 226's up-front consent provision could remove a significant source of tension between workers and their unions. As one union worker testified,

Discovering I had no control over the use of my hard earned money left me feeling disenfranchised and misrepresented since I knew it was going to support a paid political program I disagreed with. I felt taken advantage of. My trust was violated.23

If Proposition 226 passed, workers in California who believe strongly in collective bargaining, but not in union politics, no longer would be forced to choose between their First Amendment rights and their right to organize and bargain collectively with their employers.

D. Mark Wilson is former Labor Economist at The Heritage Foundation.


1 U.S. Supreme Court, Communications Workers v. Beck, 487 U.S. 735 (1988).

2 D. Mark Wilson, "The Worker Paycheck Fairness Act: Ending the Involuntary Use of Union Dues," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1156, February 12,1998.

3 Heritage calculation based on data published by Max R. Lyons, "Paycheck Protection Could Reform Campaign Finance," Employment Policy Foundation Issue Backgrounder, February 18, 1998.

4 Over 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson enunciated the fundamental axiom that "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical." Statute of Religious Freedom, adopted by Virginia in 1785.

5 Unless noted otherwise, the figures in this section are from Heritage Foundation calculations using the March 1997 Current Population Survey microdata.

6 Union security agreements cover 90 percent of all private-sector union members and require workers to pay dues as a condition of employment. See Wilson, "The Worker Paycheck Fairness Act."

7 Heritage calculation based on data published by Max R. Lyons, "The Story on Union Dues and Partisan Politics," Employment Policy Foundation Fact & Fallacy, December 1996. This study estimates average union dues to be $400 per year.

8 Heritage calculation based on data published by Jennifer Shecter, "Political Union: The Marriage of Labor & Spending," Center for Responsive Politics, September 1997, at; and Joseph Cantor, "Political Spending by Organized Labor," a Congressional Research Service Report to Congress, May 29, 1996, Center for Responsive Politics, at, May 29, 1996.

9 Heritage Foundation calculations from March 1997 Current Population Survey microdata. Earnings for each of the following figures refer to median annual earnings.

10 Dana Milbank, "California's Proposition 226, a Powerful Threat to Labor's Political Clout, Draws Many Workers," The Wall Street Journal, March 18, 1998, p. A24.

11 Mark Bucher, "Strong Majority of California Voters Support Paycheck Protection Initiative," Yes on 226, Press Release, February 27, 1998.

12 Ibid.

13 Milbank, "California's Proposition 226, a Powerful Threat to Labor's Political Clout, Draws Many Workers."

14 Bucher, "Strong Majority of California Voters Support Paycheck Protection Initiative," and David Almasi, "Political Money Monitor," National Center for Public Policy Research, Issue No. #13, April 10, 1998. This money nearly doubles the $4.2 typically spent by California teacher unions.

15 David Almasi, "Political Money Monitor," National Center for Public Policy Research, Issue No. 12, March 27, 1998.

16 Steven Greenhouse, "Labor Asks Members to Fund $13 Million Political Effort," The New York Times, March 20, 1998, p. A12.

17 Ibid.

18 Editorial, "Unions and Politics," San Diego Union-Tribune, January 7, 1998, p. B6.

19 Nadia Q. Davies, testimony before the Subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations, Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. House of Representatives, 105th Cong., 1st Sess., December 11, 1997.

20 Kenneth R. Weinstein and August Stofferahn, "From Meany to Sweeny: Labor's Leftward Tilt," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1094, October 4, 1996. On March 23, 1998, California's Supreme Court, in two related cases, affirmed the right of the Boy Scouts of America to maintain its own membership standards and deny membership to homosexuals and atheists.

21 Grady Thurston, testimony before the Subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations, Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. House of Representatives, 105th Cong., 1st Sess., March 18, 1997.

22 Editorial, The Wall Street Journal, January 6, 1998, p. A18.

23 Karen Koog, testimony before the Subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations, Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. House of Representatives, 105th Cong., 1st Sess., December 11, 1997.

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