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Should union dues back political causes?

California vote may affect other states' efforts to prevent unions' use of funds for liberal political ends.

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Fred Glass is worried that if a November ballot initiative passes here, teachers, firefighters, police, nurses, and other public employees will lose their collective political clout.

"If we can't bundle our money together, we cannot mount credible challenges to candidates and causes backed by wealthier donors," says the instructor at San Francisco City College, a member of the California Federation of Teachers.

Mr. Glass is fighting Proposition 75, an initiative that goes before California voters on Nov. 8. It would bar public employee unions from making financial contributions to political candidates or causes without its members' annual consent to do so.

The measure, backed by a coalition of business groups and antitax advocates aligned with conservatives, seeks to redress what supporters say is a key imbalance: More than 90 percent of union spending in the state has gone to Democratic candidates despite the fact that 40 percent of union households vote Republican.

Political experts see a higher-stakes repeat of 1998, when the state became a national battleground for a similar initiative - only narrowly defeated.

"Proposition 75 in California is part of a national strategy by Republicans to weaken labor unions and go after one of the biggest sources of income for Democrats and Democratic causes," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

Should California's Proposition 75 fail to pass, Mr. Schier adds, it could halt the progress of similar measures under consideration in several states - from Ohio, Michigan, and Nevada, to Florida, South Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Arizona.

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