Mitt Romney may have trouble delivering a clear message on most issues. But there’s no mistaking where he and his allies stand on the question of whether working people and their unions should have a voice in American politics. The candidate, who has relied on the support of billionaire-funded Super PACs to stay in the running, told NBC’s Education Nation Summit in late September, “We simply can’t have a setting where the teachers unions are able to contribute tens of millions of dollars to the campaigns of politicians…. I think we’ve got to get the money out of the teachers unions going into campaigns. It’s the wrong way for us to go.”
Republicans like Romney and their biggest donors know that after Supreme Court rulings like Citizens United, corporations and wealthy individuals can dominate the debate through unlimited spending. They also know that as long as union members are able to pool dues and small contributions to challenge the corporate agenda of cutbacks, layoffs and privatization, there is going to be a debate on fundamental questions about education, social services and whether America is going to have a middle class.
So Romney wants to silence the voices of teachers, cops, sanitation workers and firefighters. And he’s not alone. Some of the biggest donors to GOP campaigns—including the billionaire Koch brothers—have gathered their resources to do just that. Working with the ultraconservative Lincoln Club of Orange County, a key player in the Citizens United case, they spent millions to get an initiative on the California ballot in November. Proposition 32 would bar automatic deductions from the paychecks of union members to fund campaigns on their behalf. But it doesn’t stop there; Prop 32 would prevent public and private sector unions from aiding state and local candidates.
Unions like the California Teachers Association and the California State Council of Service Employees are among the largest and most politically engaged in the nation, and though they are often outspent, they have held their own against the campaigns of GOP candidates like Meg Whitman and billionaire-funded initiative proposals. If Prop 32 passes, however, unions “could become almost extinct in California politics,” says UC San Diego political science professor Thad Kousser. Labor activists agree. “First they silence our voice,” says the California Labor Federation. “Then they will come after our jobs, wages and retirement.”
California has rejected “paycheck protection” measures twice before. But this time the billionaires have repurposed their initiative, billing Prop 32 as campaign finance reform and using slogans like “Stop Special Interest Money Now.” The measure places controls on some corporate donors, but it includes exemptions for LLCs, real estate trusts, business trusts and others used by Wall Street investment firms, hedge funds and venture capitalist firms like Romney’s Bain Capital. No controls are placed on Super PACS. “All the exemptions favor the millionaires who don’t want to pay taxes, who cut pensions and privatize; all the restrictions attack the unions that stand up for public services,” says Dean Coate, president of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21 in the San Francisco Bay Area. Genuine reform groups like California Common Cause and the California League of Women Voters have joined the campaign, with the league’s Trudy Schafer saying of Prop 32, “It promises political reform, but it’s really designed by its special-interest backers to help themselves and harm their opponents.”
Prop 32 is a California fight now. But if it passes, it will go national just as groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and its corporate allies are mounting multi-state drives to silence unions. In Michigan, unions are trying to get ahead of the fight with a “Protect Our Jobs” amendment on the ballot this fall that would add the right to collective bargaining by public and private sector employees to the state Constitution. Right-wing interests have poured millions into a brutal ad campaign falsely claiming that the amendment would block schools from removing employees who are former criminals. Michigan’s Protect Working Families coalition has countered with the truth: “States with higher levels of collective bargaining have lower poverty levels, higher average incomes, fewer workplace deaths and higher pension and health insurance coverage for all workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute.”
In an honest fight, voters will protect collective bargaining rights, as they did last fall in Ohio by a 62–38 margin. That’s why Mitt Romney, the Koch brothers and their billionaire pals are spending so heavily—and campaigning so dishonestly—to silence the voice of unions. And that’s why, as important as the presidential race is, it’s also vital to win fights to maintain the capacity of working people to speak truth to power.
Nation blogger George Zornick says it is ”obscene” for the Republican presidential candidate to pretend to be a critic of the undue influence of Wall Street.