There’s an old joke about the intimidation tactics of the Teamsters union. “How many Teamsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Answer: “Four — you gotta a problem with that?”

As much as we would like to think that labor unions have abandoned their threatening and often illegal behavior to get what they want, in the public sector things are only getting worse. It is only a matter of time until a jilted (and honest) public sector employee says “I coulda been a contender.”

The latest bit of thuggery is an advertising campaign launched by the unions to dissuade voters from exercising their rights to sign initiative petitions. As reported in several media outlets, a union-backed effort has created a website and begun running radio commercials under the name “Californians Against Identity Theft.” These scary ads warn that anyone who signs an initiative petition — frequently gathered in front of big box stores — runs the risk of becoming a victim of identity theft.

Usually, even the most deceptive political ads have at least a grain of truth. But not here. There is no factual basis for the suggestion that signing a ballot petition would put one at risk for identity theft. Indeed, the signature data gathered by those who collect those signatures is prohibited by law from being disclosed. Interestingly, voter registration information (which consists of more data) is a matter of public record.

This latest thinly-veiled effort at stopping initiatives they don’t like is backfiring badly on the labor groups responsible. From newspaper stories, the blogosphere and from good government groups, the verdict is that this union hack job is not only misguided, but will further erode the credibility of public sector unions in California.

Derek Cressman, western regional director for Common Cause (hardly a right wing anti-union group) said, “It sounds like they’re trying to intimidate people from exercising what is a constitutional right” to sign a petition. In addition, the Sacramento Bee quotes Pedro Morillas, legislative director for the California Public Interest Research Group, as saying that “there is as much risk of identity theft involved in signing a petition as there is in being listed in the phone book.”

Turns out, after a little bit of sleuthing, that the state building trades union is one of the major funders of Californians Against Identity Theft. What a surprise. The group itself, Californians Against Identity Theft, has no connection whatsoever to any legitimate group created to protect consumers from identity theft. Nor does it appear that the group has registered as a campaign committee. Media efforts to get more information ran into stony silence by unions.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what motivates the union bosses for this latest scheme. As noted by the Sacramento Bee, “the timing of the ad launch raised questions about whether the campaign is a veiled attempt to derail one of several controversial proposals currently circulating petitions to qualify for the 2012 ballot, such as an Amazon-backed effort to overturn a new law requiring some Internet retailers to collect sales taxes on purchases made by Californians.” In addition, it is no secret that the unions are deathly afraid of the Stop Special Interest Money Now Act, also in circulation, that would reduce union political influence by prohibiting government entities from being the collection agents for unions for political funds from their members.

In any event, it is clear to us that the unions need to hire a new communications consultant. Instead of dissuading voters from exercising their constitutional rights to engage in the direct democracy rights of initiative, referendum and recall, the labor groups have brought even more unwanted attention to themselves for their overreaching, loutish behavior. (As if the pension scandals weren’t enough to drive public perception of public sector unions even lower).

Our advice to the union bosses — which, of course, they will ignore — is to argue the merits of these initiatives as warranted. If you think the Amazon referendum or any of the other measures in circulation reflect is bad public policy, say so. Don’t try to mislead people into thinking that their identities are at risk. The only thing at risk here is any notion that unions play by the rules.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

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