Union Control Over the California Political System & Public Sector Reform

Few would dispute the benefits unions have brought to society, especially through about the middle of the last century. But the inspirational work of leaders from Mary Harris Jones to Cesar Chavez is used to obscure the reality in the 21st century – that in most states in America, unions in the public sector now exercise nearly absolute control over elections, politicians, and policy, and this is happening at all levels; state, county and municipal.

Cesar Chavez
A great and courageous American.
(Photo: Wikipedia)

In California, the reality of union control over state politics became obvious during Governor Schwarzenegger’s 2005 “year of reform.”

After fruitless attempts to negotiate, Schwarzenegger supported four initiatives: (1) to extend to five years from two the time required before public school teachers gain tenure, (2) to eliminate gerrymandering by creating a non-partisan board to govern redistricting, (3) to increase the ability of the Governor to reduce expenditures to balance the budget, and (4) to give public employees the right to decide individually whether or not their union dues are used for political activity.

While these initiatives were seen as a partisan threat to Democrats, and were cast as an errant act by an out-of-control Governor, these initiatives should have been seen as a bipartisan necessity. These initiative reforms were the first steps in a process that, supposedly, voters had elected Schwarzenegger to implement. But they failed because public employee unions, using taxpayers money – if their dues are mandatory, and they usually are, then this is taxpayer’s money – spent hundreds of millions of dollars to demonize Schwarzenegger and defeat the initiatives.

Now California is in precisely the fiscal predicament those initiatives were intended to help prevent. And Governor Schwarzenegger – one of the only politicians to openly defy the public sector unions in recent history – has perhaps now become one of the “girlee men” he once mocked, refusing to state the problem plainly as he once did – public employee unions control California.

It is important to again emphasize that unions, per se, are not necessarily a bad thing. After all, in the globalized private sector, unions either are reasonable or they destroy entire industries. Much of America’s manufacturing sector has been destroyed because unions took too long to recognize the threat of global competition. Since then unions in the private sector have become more reasonable and realistic in their expectations. Now the most powerful unions operate almost exclusively in the public sector, where there is no competition, and revenues are guaranteed through taxes. For more on the principles that should underlie reform and regulation of public sector unions, read “Unions, Ideals vs. Reality.”

When unions no longer negotiate with the government, but are the government, elections become a travesty. The injustice and hypocrisy that attends this reality is so multi-faceted as to pretty much defy description. Every program, every cause, every campaign brought forth by government is suspect. Every candidate is a puppet. Every bureaucrat is a pawn. There is a shadow government that exercises the real power in California, and they don’t occupy the capitol building – but instead the various union headquarters across the country.

There are 3.7 million state, county and city employees in California, and nearly all of them pay union dues averaging about $1,000 per year. This means the unions have access to literally billions of dollars every year to pour into election campaigns. As a result, compliant politicians have granted concession after concession, so today public employees make 2-4x what private sector workers make (depending on whether or not you factor in the present value of their retirement benefits during the years they work), retire 10 years earlier than private sector workers, enjoy far more paid time off, and receive outrageously generous pensions and health care plans – while the rest of us have to either be rich to retire with financial security, or have to sell our homes via reverse mortgages and hope we die before the payments stop – with nothing to leave our heirs. This is the real “two Americas.”

For a long time unions weren’t able to exercise this level of control at the national level, but that is quickly changing. Just last week the U.S. Senate voted, with a veto-proof majority of 69 Senators, to send to the Senate floor a bill that will require every city or county government in the United States to engage in mandatory collective bargaining with national unions representing public safety workers. This bill already sailed through the House of Representatives with an overwhelming majority. That the unions have now mustered the power to intimidate 69 U.S. Senators into accepting this legislation is testimony to the fact they have consolidated their power at the state level, and is a harbinger of what is to come. One of the reasons we don’t hear much about this is because today Republicans are on the run, fragmented, lacking any mission, instead falling over themselves to be more Democratic than the Democrats. But Republicans provide balance, at least as long as they remember their principles, and America will not be better off as a one-party nation. Again, this is a bipartisan issue, or should be.

It isn’t our charter to editorialize continuously about politics – our charter is to report on clean technology and the status of species and ecosystems. Similarly, it isn’t our charter to report on global warming alarm, but because global warming alarm is being used opportunistically by virtually every powerful vested interest in the world to further their special agenda, and because the policies attendant to this alarm are going to undermine our property rights and economic opportunities more than anything else in American history, we have to spend time on that, too. And the connection between the rise of public employee unions and global warming alarm is quite interesting:

Rather than face inevitable financial insolvency due to pension and health care obligations too expensive to possibly be met, the public sector understands that global warming alarm will facilitate huge transfers of wealth into the public sector without officially enacting new taxes. Using California as an example, here’s how:

  1. Public agencies can impose fees to mitigate for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, then redefine existing public sector jobs to address GHG challenges.
  2. Public agencies intend to regularly auction GHG emission allowances to industry, using the billions in proceeds in ways yet unspecified.
  3. Zoning laws will require more draconian “in-fill” than ever, creating ultra high density housing and ruining semi-rural neighborhoods everywhere, then the public agencies will calculate the alleged annual GHG emission tonnage savings vs. “business as usual” and sell these reductions as emissions credits to industry. AB 2596 sets the stage for this activity.
  4. Public agencies will assess fines and launch lucrative civil suits against any industry that fails to sufficiently reduce their “carbon footprint.” For more on global warming read “Environmentalist Priorities.”

Everything coming out of Sacramento so far relating to global warming mitigation suggests that it is viewed as a huge windfall revenue opportunity by the public agencies. And so this will be, ironically enough, the real “endless war,” this futile attempt to reduce GHG emissions based on flawed logic. But it may very well bring enough revenue into the public sector to delay reforms for a generation.

Instead of fleecing the consumer and undermining the economy, here are some basic reforms that should apply to public sector unions and finance – and given sufficient public awareness, these reforms can be accomplished either via citizen’s initiatives or through bankruptcy court:

  1. All future public employees will recieve social security and medicare, just like the rest of us. This will mean the same baseline retirement and health security formula will apply to all voters – if reform and upgrades to social security and medicare is ever to occur, this is how we’ll get it done. This will also prevent public employees from being slaves to their pensions – afraid to ever take a chance in the private sector.
  2. Current public employees will participate in both their current benefits or the new system according to a formula based on their years in the workforce. If they are 90% completed with their working years, then they will get 90% of what they would have gotten through their old pension plan, along with 10% of what they would get if they had been social security participants their entire career. If they are only 10% completed with their working years, those proportions would be flipped, and so on.
  3. Public employee unions will be forbidden from engaging in political activity, if not banned altogether. There are compelling reasons why government organizations should not allow their members to belong to a union – the job of the government is to look out for everyone, not just their own. The lack of competitive checks on government organizations, the guaranteed revenue, and the enormous power wielded by public bureaucrats creates too many conflicts of interest; an unbalanced field that cries for reform.

4 Responses to “Union Control Over the California Political System & Public Sector Reform”
  1. Peter A. Quilici says:

    Well done. If you can re-write the commentary so it is applicable to Illinois and have it published in the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune or Sun-Times, I’ll join and donate to your organization.

    I’ve been following CA’s government employee benefit mess for a while. Illinois state and municipal employee pension plans and benefits are in the same apparently protected status due to union donations and political cowardice.

    That the US Congress is co-opted should come as no surprise. Many US Reps and Senators started out in the state legislature, and the influence of their patrons merely followed them to DC.

    Although, I may share many goals with the Democratic party, I avoid voting for its candidates because its public employee union affiliations cost me too much. Elections in Illinois’ Cook County, which includes Chicago, are all but pre-ordained by public employee unions, especially the teachers’ unions who control the most wealth.

    It seems the topic of parity in private and public sector retirement is beginning to percolate upwards.

  2. Ed Ring says:

    Then good mid-western folks are invited to pick up the theme and run with it. These are not partisan, nor anti-union proposals. There are nuances upon nuances. Nationalization of unions, especially in the public sector, takes away local control and pulls money out of the community. Resisting nationalization, or lobbying for policies that would increase their efficiency and actually reduce the size of their organizations while providing more services, are examples of policies local public sector unions should carefully weigh if they are to continue being politically active. A national union cannot possibly equitably adjust salaries and wages to reflect local conditions, and city councils everywhere are completely outgunned. This is not how democracy should work.

    Health and post-employment benefits for public workers are far greater than what private sector workers, as taxpayers, are afforded by government through medicare and social security, and they are financially unsustainable. Everyone’s security should matter to anyone who fights for workers. Public sector salaries and wages could be increased, if the future health and retirement benefits could be brought back to what government offers the private sector workers.

    Increasing today’s salaries for the public sector workforce – or at least paying competitively with the private sector – while at the same time reforming future benefits would help the economy today by putting more cash into circulation and would actually save money. Equally beneficial, getting these pension liabilities reduced for existing public sector workers (step 2), along with accruing far less new liability for incoming public sector workers, would restore the solvency of cities. Public sector reform will save taxpayers money, it will turn the economy around, and it will actually allow the public sector to provide more services. Increasing salaries and wages is easily cost neutral given the savings on pension funding reductions, and would also help boost recruitment of highly qualified new public sector workers in all areas – saving on overtime and providing excellent new jobs.

  3. linda walsh says:

    Wait a minute! California’s troubles did not really start with the collapse of the housing market , with the governor’s gamble in enacting bonds on rising profits in that market and the financially unsound banking and investment practices! Perhaps, it is the payment of low wages as well as depletion of the tax base due to the enormous growth of non profits that is responsible for the present economic crisis in California. Hey, it is not the unions that are to fault; it is the lack of demand due to free or cheap labor that is dragging California down. Go and study Lord M. Keynes people; you can not get anything for free!
    The person making money for you, Linda E. Ealsh

  1. Cities Retire…

    I couldn’t understand some parts of this article, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting….

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