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Don't Let Them Fool You

Big Business takes its biggest step to silence working families.

They’re at it again.

The same corporate executives, politicians and right-wing ideologues who want to raid pensions, privatize Social Security, get rid of the minimum wage, keep safety inspectors out of the workplace, and sell off government services to profit-making corporations have created a $149-million war chest to silence the voice of America’s working families.

Map of the United States

They’re using their millions to introduce laws across the country that would force unions to get the annual, written approval of every member before dues could be spent on "political" activities — the political activities that prevent Big Business from exploiting working people.

Grover Norquist, whose Americans for Tax Reform group is at the center of this effort, has laid out the objective plainly: "[to] crush labor unions as a political entity."

Anti-union organizations have introduced an item on the California ballot for June. Congress is considering national legislation. Chances are, you’ll be seeing a Big Business initiative in your state as well.

Whether the law is called the "Paycheck Protection Act," or the "Labor Organizations Deductions Act," or the "Campaign Reform Initiative," it still means the same thing: Corporations are trying to pull the wool over voters’ eyes to silence working people. That’s why we call it the Paycheck Deception Act.

THE SUPPORTERS. Who is behind this campaign? Some of the most powerful corporations, organizations, think tanks and politicians in the United States. Supporters in Congress include the leaders of both houses: House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Big Business is mounting an aggressive campaign. The National Association of Manufacturers is contributing $18.75 million. The Business Roundtable, a national organization of corporate chief executive officers, is providing $20 million. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also has swung its weight behind the drive. "You’re going to see us everywhere," says Chamber Pres. Thomas Donahue. "We will energetically oppose union-led programs to hijack the American political system."

A group of right-wing, anti-union think tanks and organizations are providing money and coordination for the campaign. The National Right to Work Committee, which promotes anti-union, right-to-work laws across the nation, is kicking in an estimated $10.5 million. Americans for Tax Reform is coordinating the campaign and spending some $10 million. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is providing model legislation to activists around the country. Among other anti-worker measures, ALEC supports the repeal of the minimum wage, the creation of management-run "unions," and an end to release time for workers engaged in union activity.

These groups sugarcoat their intentions by saying they are working for "campaign finance reform" or "fairness for workers." But their anti-union, anti-worker agenda shows that they are doing nothing more than helping Big Business shut up working people — and shut them out of politics. And as soon as unions are made powerless, Big Business will be free to reverse half a century of union political victories that have improved the lives of all Americans: pension laws, minimum wage protections, workplace safety laws. It’s frightening.

GRASSROOTS POLITICS. This sort of battle is nothing new to AFSCME members who have been fighting for working people through the political process for over 60 years. Today, AFSCME members are working with candidates and elected officials to help their communities and protect their jobs.

But if the forces of Paycheck Deception prevail, they may never be as effective again.

IN THE BEGINNING. Remember 1996?

That’s when unions and working people succeeded in kicking out of Congress 18 members of Gingrich’s "revolutionary army."

Thanks to voter registration drives, educational campaigns, and get-out-the-vote efforts, union volunteers brought 2.3 million more union voters to the polls than in the previous election.

If unions had succeeded in squeezing just 10,000 more pro-worker voters into polling booths, Gingrich would be history and working people would have turned back completely the radical right’s current anti-worker agenda.

As it is, union people came close.

Pro-worker representatives have stood by working families. They voted for increases in the minimum wage. They also voted against ill-conceived attempts to dismantle workplace safety standards. And they held off right-wing attacks on Medicare, public education and pension protection.

The Paycheck Deception Initiative, then, is an attempt by Newt Gingrich and his many allies in business and the radical right to get even with working people and their unions.

Supporters of the Paycheck Deception Initiative charge that union leaders force their political views on members and then spend their money without permission.

That’s just not true.

Unlike corporate executives, AFSCME leaders are elected to their positions by rank-and-file members. A poll taken by Peter Hart Research Associates shows that 84 percent of union members want the Labor movement to speak out about politics and legislation. The poll also shows that 86 percent agree with such union positions as fighting to protect Medicare.

Union members who disagree with the political activities of their union are returned a percentage of their dues simply by writing a letter.

SMALL POTATOES. Big Business also would have union members believe that their dues go into the pockets of political candidates. The truth is that federal law and many state laws forbid unions from donating dues to candidates or political campaigns. However, many members choose to contribute to other union-related political funds — such as AFSCME PEOPLE (our Public Employees Organized to Promote Legislative Equality program) — which do support candidates. These funds are small potatoes in America’s political stew pot, according to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

FEC figures, compiled by the AFL-CIO, show that in the 1996 election, direct voluntary contributions by unions to all political candidates totaled $58.1 million. Corporate donations topped $653.4 million. That’s 11 corporate dollars for every $1 donated by union members.

But that’s still not enough for Big Business. It’s not enough that unions play politics with the disadvantage of fewer funds — corporations want the playing field all to themselves.

THE GAG RULE. While the particular language of the Paycheck Deception Campaign varies from state to state, the effect of these proposals would be devastating to unions.

The California ballot initiative, for example, would force unions to get the written approval of members every year to use dues for such activities as meeting with elected officials, publishing voter guides and get-out-the-vote drives. It could also prohibit workers from using payroll deductions for donations to charities. Other Paycheck Deception proposals would let employers and state agencies end routine payroll deductions of union dues if they just "thought" the dues might be used for "political purposes." And the employers and state agency heads would be able to both write the form and keep records of who is politically active.

Meanwhile, corporations could continue to spend political money without the permission of their workers or shareholders. Other membership groups, such as the American Medical Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, would be unaffected, even though they spend millions in dues money for political purposes without the approval of members.

Why should there be a double standard for unions, which are also democratically elected organizations?

BATTLE CRY. The Paycheck Deception Campaign is the most serious battle in Big Business’s long war on working people. It is a battle over wages, benefits, pensions, job safety and the well-being of our families. It is a battle we cannot afford to lose.

If AFSCME members do not use their political voices now in opposition to Paycheck Deception, they may lose their voices forever.

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