As California's public employee unions wield their political might the state's government is increasingly controlled not by the citizens it is meant to serve, but by those within government itself. In theory that shift is troubling—it transforms the core matter of who is sovereign within our political system. In practice it becomes more troublesome when the agenda of public employee unions isn't even moderated by, nor does it reflect, the preferences of its politically diverse membership. So it goes today, as union households typically split their vote between Democrats and Republicans, but union political expenditures notoriously go overwhelmingly to Democrats.
Proposition 75 would rectify that imbalance by protecting the preferences of union members when their money is at stake. Union bosses would be prohibited from spending union dues on political activity without the consent of the dues paying member. Significantly, the ballot measure will not eliminate the powerful influence that public employee unions exert on government, or their power to coerce employees into paying union dues. It would, however, protect a core freedom for many thousands of public employees.
Who could oppose a measure that simply requires that employees have the right to decide whether and how to make political donations? The answer is union bosses and the politicians they support, for whom individual freedom is a low priority. Such groups purport to exercise rights and political power on behalf of individuals. Under this theory, individual Americans are secondary to interest groups, who wield their members' rights and deploy their political power. Thus "labor" deals with "business," each acting on behalf of its respective clienteles, and the whole process is watched over by federal regulators, whose job is to keep these interest groups in what they deem proper balance.
Union leaders thus spend money on the premise that they know the political interests of workers better than workers themselves. Communist theorists and leaders from Marx onward asserted the same argument: party elites, in the vanguard of thinking, are needed to instruct ordinary citizens what to do and how to think.
That mindset is sufficiently at odds with America's founding principles that the political use of union dues is properly seen to be part of a larger debate of prime importance. It concerns the ability of the majority—restrained by constitutional checks and limitations—to continue exercising their natural rights, including the primary right of political consent. Among the questions it raises: Who is sovereign, the individual—or some group or corporate entity acting (with governmental sanction and support) on his or her behalf? To what extent can the rights of conscience, association, and freedom of speech be violated by the use of an individual's money without his consent and against his judgment?
As political controversy surrounds these questions one principle must remain clear: America was founded on the idea that individual natural rights—including the right of consent, and the rights to freedom of speech, conscience, and association—are inalienable rights.
These natural rights, so dear to the American founders, necessitate that individual citizens be responsible for political action, not groups purporting to act in their interest, but without their consent, and against their wishes. In California, these rights are violated when workers, whether union members or not, are forced to pay fees to unions, which can then spend this money to support political candidates and activities with which individual workers might disagree.
As long as unions are granted by law the special legal privilege of forcing payment of fees even by people who do not choose to join a union, there can be no solution to this routine denial of individual rights. The best solution would be the passage of "right to work" legislation in California or nationally, which would prevent unions from coercing money from non-members. In the absence of such legislation, "paycheck protection" initiatives such as Proposition 75 at least offer some defense of individual rights of public employees. Its passage would prove a significant improvement in the development of the state's constitutional governance for decades to come.