Proposition Aimed at Unions Exemplifies Why California Needs Initiative Reform

A union protest in Los Angeles in 2011. | Photo: Paul Bailey/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Do you ever wonder why there are so many ballot initiatives designed to decrease the political clout of unions? Well, simply put, because they have a lot of it.

In our country, thanks to decades of United States Supreme Court rulings, political money is seen as the equivalent to political speech, and therefore money really is power. Unions have a lot of this particular type of power, which is why their opponents have consistently waged efforts to make it more difficult for them to spend money in political campaigns.

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The 2012 election in California is yet another example of this dynamic. One particular initiative, Proposition 32, would have made it harder for unions to raise funds from members to be used for political purposes. Regardless of your view of the merits of this failed proposal, there is no doubt it would have significantly lessened the power of unions in the Golden State.

Labor unions were wise to the potential effects of Prop 32 and spent some $65 million to defeat that proposition. Even at that sum, labor unions were outspent by proponents of Proposition 32. As many opponents of labor unions know, even when a ballot initiative is unsuccessful they can rejoice in forcing unions to spend tens of millions on pricey electoral campaigns. But, of course, the opponents have also spent vast sums.

As is typical in California the California Teachers Association was the highest spending union. That union alone spent $36 million in the 2012 elections. The majority of those funds were spent to defeat Proposition 32.

Optimists and pessimists alike may wonder whether the tens of millions would be better spent on other causes, such as education, health and medical care, or infrastructure. Unfortunately because what proponents of ballot measures need to qualify for the ballot is money, it looks like these pricey campaigns, even the unsuccessful ones, are here to stay. For this and other reasons it is vital that we have a serious discussion about reforming the initiative process.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every week. She is an Associate Clinical Professor at Loyola Law School. Read more of her posts here.

About the Author

Jessica Levinson is an Associate Clinical Professor at Loyola Law School. She focuses on the intersection of law and government.
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