AB 421: SEIU’s Bid to Gut California’s 112-year-old Referendum and Initiative Laws
In the devil’s workshop we call the state legislature, government union leaders are hard at work — destroying another of California’s democratic institutions.
Fresh off the shutdown of Los Angeles Unified schools and the overthrow of their own elected president — and facing steep declines in membership and revenue — Service Employees International Union (SEIU) activists are lobbying state lawmakers on behalf of Assembly Bill 421.
It’s the union’s bid to gut the state’s 112-year-old referendum and initiative laws. California’s government unions, perhaps especially SEIU, have been frustrated in their efforts to use that system to their own exclusive advantage.
Pitching AB 421 as a reform, the bill’s author, Assemblyman Issac Bryan (D-Los Angeles), called the referendum and initiative laws part of “a very old process” which, “over time” have lost their “original intent and utility.”
Along with SEIU leaders, Bryan said corporations have abused the system. The referendum and initiative process “has been subverted by a small, disgruntled, well-funded, well-powered set of interests that often undermine the collective will of the people of California,” Bryan told the Los Angeles Times.
Here’s what’s weird about Bryan’s claim: “small,” “disgruntled,” “well-funded” and “powerful interests working against the people of California” perfectly describes the place of government unions in California politics — and describes Bryan himself.
In the last election cycle, SEIU (the group pushing AB 421) gave Bryan a jaw-dropping campaign contribution of $66,900.
The Los Angeles Times reports:
Assembly Bill 421 would establish new government oversight of signature collection, require more transparency about the groups funding referendum campaigns and mandate that at least 10 percent of petition signatures must be obtained by unpaid volunteers. The sweeping legislation would apply the new rules to referendums and extend to initiative campaigns that seek to repeal or amend a state statute within two years of the law taking effect.
Everyone’s for transparency — it’s how our colleague, researcher Sheridan Swanson, discovered that SEIU gave the sitting California Assemblyman’s political campaign $66,900. She could do that because campaign donor disclosure laws already exist, and they require transparency in molecular detail.
So, transparency isn’t a problem. The problems are the “new government oversight” and “unpaid volunteers.” Those seemingly innocuous provisions should alarm reasonable people. In California, most government oversight is of the foxes-guarding-henhouses variety; in California, “unpaid volunteers” are often government workers performing union work on the taxpayers’ dime — they call it “release time.” (You can see an example of that here.)
Both Bryan and SEIU officials clearly have their talking points written in Sharpie on the palms of their hands, and the Times dutifully amplifies them, including — significantly — bullhorning the backers’ complete misrepresentation of the history of initiative, referendum and recall. Here’s how the Times reports it:
The Service Employees International Union of California and other proponents of the bill say it’s necessary to realign California’s referendum system with its founding objective from 1911: to provide a mechanism through direct democracy for voters to counter the influence corporations held over state government.
It’s natural that Bryan and government union leaders would mischaracterize the intention of the initiative, referendum and recall system as anti-corporate.
The fact is that the 1911 reform campaign was indeed prompted by the corrupting influence of a corporation, the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad. The company was so massive, so pervasive that it was called “The Octopus,” and not merely because of its complex network of rail lines throughout California and the West. The company’s influence ran into every town from the Oregon border to Mexico and the Sierra Nevada. From 1865 to 1911, the Octopus ran California state and local government. The company’s capacity for personal violence and outrageous corruption are captured dramatically (sometimes too dramatically) in Frank Norris’s classic 1901 novel, “The Octopus.”
But neither “corporations” nor the Southern Pacific Railroad were mentioned in the propositions on the 1911 ballot. That’s because the principled purpose of the campaign was to create a long-term solution to the perennial problem confronting free people throughout history, the problem of special interests capturing government. The new laws would allow Californians to remind their elected officials who is ultimately in charge.
It’s worth noting that the 1911 reforms were advanced by the state’s Republican governor, Hiram Johnson, as well as by local Republican Party organizations, Democrat-leaning trade unions, ranchers, farmers and business owners.
Who opposed them? People who but for their Victorian dress, awesome beards and ample bellies (not to mention their remarkable business acumen) were the 1911 versions of Issac Bryan and SEIU chairman Bill Hall — the kinds of people who, like the Southern Pacific of old, control California’s political machinery.
Recall the revelatory moment when Los Angeles teachers union boss Alex Caputo-Pearl famously said to his members, “We have a unique power — we elect our bosses. It would be difficult to think of workers anywhere else who elect their bosses. We do. We must take advantage of it.”
That’s a statement that would have impressed the owners of the Southern Pacific Railroad.
The Southern Pacific no longer exists — vanished beneath waves of mergers. But the problem of corruption persists. If anything, it is worse.
In 2023, as in 1911, it’s clear that one outside interest has captured the state legislature and every statewide office — not “corporations” but government unions, the very groups behind AB 421.
No adult expects SEIU officials (or those representing any government union) to know the important history around 1911’s propositions 7 and 8 — or to be honest about that history when they find out.
Important footnote: 1911’s Prop. 4 gave women the right to vote in all California elections — nine years before the United States extended that right to all American women. Talk about being on the right side of history.
Will Swaim is the President of California Policy Center.