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Californians Nix Prop 226: Massive Grassroots Mobilization Beats Scheme to Silence Workers

It took a monumental grassroots mobilization backed up by a paid media campaign, but in the end it was the plain truth that torpedoed Prop 226 in California.
Only three months ago, a solid 70 percent of voters - union members included - told pollsters they would vote "yes" on the measure to require unions to get annual written permission from each member for political action, including voluntary PAC contributions.

On June 2, Californians rejected Prop 226 by a 54-46 margin in a landslide shift that AFL-CIO head John Sweeney termed a "political miracle."

Behind the miracle was a lot of hard work by CWA activists and union members throughout California who staffed phone banks, knocked on doors, stuffed envelopes for mailings, and worked with the news media.

Two clear messages resonated and turned the tide, according to post election polling:

  • Prop 226, as with similar measures in other states, was inspired and bankrolled by the likes of Newt Gingrich and the GOPAC crowd, California Gov. Pete Wilson, the Chamber of Commerce, factions of the health insurance industry that want to privatize Medicare, and various rich union-haters.

  • It unfairly sought to silence the political voice of working families, while doing nothing to restrict big business and wealthy interests that already outspend unions 11-1 in political campaigns.

"When the facts came out," said CWA President Morton Bahr, "support overwhelmingly shifted away from the union bashers and their sloganeering about 'union bosses,' and in favor of the organizations that really protect the paychecks and the rights of working Americans."
Even some businesses distanced themselves from the measure. American Income Life Insurance contributed $100,000 to labor's fund to defeat Prop 226 - and GTE contributed $50,000 to the fund on the side of working families.

"This was a truly generous and selfless gesture by these two companies," Bahr said.

District 9 Vice President Tony Bixler noted, "In a sense, our enemies did us a favor by forcing us to mobilize and tell the general public just what we do to fight for safe workplaces, strong labor standards and fair treatment for all working men and women, both organized and unorganized."

Bixler and other California labor leaders intend to build on the momentum of an energized labor movement to elect as governor Democrat Gray Davis, who strongly opposed Prop 226, and to put other pro-labor candidates in office this November.

Members Rally to Cause
CWA local officers, members, retirees and political activists throughout California rallied to the cause after they realized the unfairness and injustice that were being thrown in their face by well-heeled out-of-staters, Bixler said.

Many local officers reported their mobilization efforts had been geared up to support bargaining with Pacific Telesis and that the fight to reject Prop 226 was an extension of the battle for a new contract.

"Proponents of the measure helped wake up a sleeping giant. They brought us all together," said Tom Ramirez, vice president of CWA Local 9421 in Sacramento.

In his role as chair of CWA's North-ern California-Nevada Area Council's legislative-political committee, Ramirez said he and Local 9421 President Greg Ball "used every resource we could" to educate, motivate and energize members to participate in the campaign to defeat Prop 226.

The numbers from Northern California are impressive: Ramirez says 830 volunteers devoted 2,831 hours to the cause, knocking on 7,493 doors and making 28,336 phone calls.

"We think our efforts generated 17,550 'no' votes on Prop 226," he says.

Ramirez, Ball and others also got commitment cards signed, helped in the distribution of 1,200 lawn signs and worked with central labor councils (CLCs) to conduct precinct walks.

Louie Rocha, president of Local 9423 in the San Jose area, said he and other local officers "used every forum we could - from our local publication to our site on the Internet - to get out the message." In addition, special meetings and work site visits were used to explain the issue.

The message that seemed to work best, Rocha said: That the proponents of 226 wanted to cripple the labor movement, which is responsible for Social Security, health and safety laws and other laws and regulations that protect the rights of workers.

"We asked our people to look at who's behind Prop 226 and to ask themselves what's on their agenda," adding that he and others reminded their supporters that California's Republican governor, Pete Wilson, "is not a working class hero."

Rocha came out of the battle with the belief that the labor movement needs to communicate better with members on a year-round basis, reminding them that we are a social movement that works in their best interests and that "our fight is right."

Local 9423 spread out, working with CLCs in the South Bay, Monterey, San Mateo and Santa Cruz areas, he added.

The local represents 2,800 workers and Rocha estimates that 500 of them were involved in the effort.

From Students to Retirees
The union effort involved persons of all ages, from the young to the old, from students to retirees.

Jelger Kalmijn, president of UPTE-CWA Local 9119, whose local represents 10,000 professional and technical workers on nine University of California campuses, the Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory and at five UC medical centers, said activists within the local reached out not only to their peers but to student groups throughout the vast university.

"I think 90 to 95 percent of those we contacted voted against Prop 226," Kalmijn said. Not only did the local work hard to explain the issues - and identify our enemies behind Prop 226 - but also to register new voters among the student body and in get-out-the-vote drives on election day.

Addie Brinkley of Modesto, the District 9 representative on CWA's Retired Members' Council, said she and other older activists made literally thousands of calls on labor's behalf on Prop 226. "Personally, I figure I made 300 calls," she says.

Retired Members Clubs in Locals 9408, 9410, 9417, 9418, 9423, all in Northern California, and 9400, 9503, 9509, 9510 and 9586, Southern California, responded to the plea for help by participating in phone banks, stuffing envelopes and making precinct walks, Brinkley said.

Local 9400 Coordinator
Marge Terflinger, president of Local 9400, headquartered in Paramount, and which represents 8,500 workers from one end of the state to the other, turned to Alex Rooker - "a natural choice" - to coordinate the local's campaign against Prop 226.

Rooker is not only an executive board member in the local but also a vice president of the Democratic Party in California. Two other members of Local 9400 - Judy Perez and Judy Metcalf - worked from 8:30 in the morning to 9 at night most days on the campaign.

One of the highlights, Rooker said, was turning out 400 or 500 union members in a matter of hours to heckle Wilson at an appearance the governor made at the Huntington Beach Mall. "We didn't learn of his plans until 90 minutes before the event," Rooker says.

She's convinced that the momentum built up around labor's fight to defeat Prop 226 will carry over into November and the election of a union-friendly governor to succeed Wilson, who cannot seek another term. Heading the Democratic Party ballot on Nov. 3 will be Gray Davis, the state's current lieutenant governor, who won the nomination as governor with overwhelming support from union members and hard-core Democrats.

Ellie Brenner, president of Local 9430 in Foster City, 25 miles south of San Francisco, says that she even got a good reception in her upscale area.

One of the hardest working people in her local turned out to be Charlie Dunn, a retiree and former local president, who was "tireless" in his efforts, researching phone numbers and even cooking meals for the 25-member volunteer crew that she assembled.

"A Glamour Issue"
Margie Marks, president of Local 9410 in the San Francisco area, turned to Gladys Mendleson, a local steward, chair of the local's equity committee and a political activist within CWA and the San Mateo CLC. "226 was my eighth campaign in the last four years - and my fourth in the last 15 months," Mendleson says proudly.

Mendleson is hopeful about labor's prospects of electing union-friendly candidates in November. She says the fight to defeat Prop 226 drew a lot of intense support because it was "a glamour issue - people wanted to be involved."

She worked with 600 volunteers from 75 local unions affiliated with the CLC to make more than 10,000 phone calls.

"We had 75 volunteers working our phone banks from a main center in a Machinists hall and from satellite offices - nearly double our previous high on other campaigns," she says.

Judy Beal, president of San Diego Local 9509 - which represents some 3,100 workers throughout the Imperial Valley - said her local produced two people to work full-time on the anti-226 campaign. They were Dolly Shubert, an executive vice president, and John Young, vice president.

The local used phone banks, work site visits, "human billboards," and other tactics to get the message out - and found overwhelming support among those contacted, Beale said. "Many said they were glad to be asked for their vote. Nobody had bothered to ask them before," she added.

The California Miracle
John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, had harsh criticism for Grover Norquist, Pete Wilson and other backers of the rejected proposition at a news conference the day following the vote.

The Norquist-Wilson supported measure was seen by workers - when it was explained properly - as a "threat to their ability to speak on issues like Social Security and health care as well as job-related issues like workplace health and safety and wage standards."

"We do have a big problem in our political system - big money," Sweeney also said, in a formal statement.

"In 1996, corporations and business representatives poured more than $650 million in soft and hard money combined into politics - more than 11 times what the representatives of working Americans were able to spend.

"People know this torrent of money is polluting our political system and swamping their individual votes, and the result is painfully low voter participation and turnout and confidence in government. As money in politics goes up, voter participation goes down."

The labor movement supports campaign finance reform that would outlaw soft money and that would limit the amount rich contributors could give, what candidates can spend and what political parties can accept and spend, Sweeney said.

Meanwhile, the battle over the deceptively-named "paycheck protection" issue rages elsewhere:

  • In Nevada, District Judge Myron Leavitt on June 10 ruled that the state's proposed version of the bill was unconstitutional and banned it from the November ballot. Leavitt ruled that the measure would violate union members' First Amendment rights, unfairly targets labor organizations, is pre-empted by federal labor law and interferes with private, voluntary checkoffs in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

  • Ballott initiatives may confront voters in Oregon and Colorado this fall, and legislation to silence workers is pending in Wyoming, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Alaska.

  • Legislation has been stopped cold in 19 other states.