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The Beholden State


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City Journal:

The Beholden State
How public-sector unions broke California

The camera focuses on an official of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), California’s largest public-employee union, sitting in a legislative chamber and speaking into a microphone. “We helped to get you into office, and we got a good memory,” she says matter-of-factly to the elected officials outside the shot. “Come November, if you don’t back our program, we’ll get you out of office.’

The video has become a sensation among California taxpayer groups for its vivid depiction of the audacious power that public-sector unions wield in their state. The unions’ political triumphs have molded a California in which government workers thrive at the expense of a struggling private sector. The state’s public school teachers are the highest-paid in the nation. Its prison guards can easily earn six-figure salaries. State workers routinely retire at 55 with pensions higher than their base pay for most of their working life. Meanwhile, what was once the most prosperous state now suffers from an unemployment rate far steeper than the nation’s and a flood of firms and jobs escaping high taxes and stifling regulations. This toxic combination—high public-sector employee costs and sagging economic fortunes—has produced recurring budget crises in Sacramento and in virtually every municipality in the state.

How public employees became members of the elite class in a declining California offers a cautionary tale to the rest of the country, where the same process is happening in slower motion. The story starts half a century ago, when California public workers won bargaining rights and quickly learned how to elect their own bosses—that is, sympathetic politicians who would grant them outsize pay and benefits in exchange for their support. Over time, the unions have turned the state’s politics completely in their favor. The result: unaffordable benefits for civil servants; fiscal chaos in Sacramento and in cities and towns across the state; and angry taxpayers finally confronting the unionized masters of California’s unsustainable government.

California’s government workers took longer than many of their counterparts to win the right to bargain collectively. New York City mayor Robert Wagner started a national movement back in the late 1950s when he granted negotiating rights to government unions, hoping to enlist them as allies against the city’s Tammany Hall machine. The movement intensified in the early sixties, after President John F. Kennedy conferred the right to bargain on federal workers. In California, a more politically conservative environment at the time, public employees remained without negotiating power through most of the sixties, though they could join labor associations. In 1968, however, the state legislature passed the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act, extending bargaining rights to local government workers. Teachers and other state employees won the same rights in the seventies.

These legislative victories happened at a time of surging prosperity. California’s aerospace industry, fueled by the Cold War, was booming; investments in water supply and infrastructure nourished the state’s agribusiness; cheaper air travel and a famously temperate climate burnished tourism. The twin lures of an expanding job market and rising incomes pushed the state’s population higher, from about 16 million in 1960 to 23 million in 1980 and nearly 30 million by 1990. This expanding population in turn led to rapid growth in government jobs—from a mere 874,000 in 1960 to 1.76 million by 1980 and nearly 2.1 million in 1990—and to exploding public-union membership. In the late 1970s, the California teachers’ union boasted about 170,000 members; that number jumped to about 225,000 in the early 1990s and stands at 340,000 today.

The swelling government payroll made many California taxpayers uneasy, eventually encouraging the 1978 passage of Proposition 13 (see page 30), the famous initiative that capped property-tax hikes and sought to slow the growth of local governments, which feed on property taxes. Government workers rightly saw Prop. 13 as a threat. “We’re not going to just lie back and take it,” a California labor leader told the Washington Post after the vote, adding that Prop. 13 had made the union “more militant.” The next several years proved him right. In 1980 alone, unionized employees of California local governments went on strike 40 times, even though doing so was illegal. And once the Supreme Court of California sanctioned state and local workers’ right to strike in 1985—something that their counterparts in most other states still lack—the unions quickly mastered confrontational techniques like the “rolling strike,” in which groups of workers walk off jobs at unannounced times, and the “blue flu,” in which public-safety workers call in sick en masse.

But in post–Proposition 13 California, strikes were far from the unions’ most fearsome weapons. Aware that Proposition 13 had shifted political action to the state capital, three major blocs—teachers’ unions, public-safety unions, and the Service Employees International Union, which now represents 350,000 assorted government workers—began amassing colossal power in Sacramento. Over the last 30 years, they have become elite political givers and the state’s most powerful lobbying factions, replacing traditional interest groups and changing the balance of power. Today, they vie for the title of mightiest political force in California.

Consider the California Teachers Association. Much of the CTA’s clout derives from the fact that, like all government unions, it can help elect the very politicians who negotiate and approve its members’ salaries and benefits. Soon after Proposition 13 became law, the union launched a coordinated statewide effort to support friendly candidates in school-board races, in which turnout is frequently low and special interests can have a disproportionate influence. In often bitter campaigns, union-backed candidates began sweeping out independent board members. By 1987, even conservative-leaning Orange County saw 83 percent of board seats up for grabs going to union-backed candidates. The resulting change in school-board composition made the boards close allies of the CTA.

But with union dues somewhere north of $1,000 per member and 340,000 members, the CTA can afford to be a player not just in local elections but in Sacramento, too (and in Washington, for that matter, where it’s the National Education Association’s most powerful affiliate). The CTA entered the big time in 1988, when it almost single-handedly led a statewide push to pass Proposition 98, an initiative—opposed by taxpayer groups and Governor George Deukmejian—that required 40 percent of the state’s budget to fund local education. To drum up sympathy, the CTA ran controversial ads featuring students; in one, a first-grader stares somberly into the camera and says, “Pay attention—today’s lesson is about the school funding initiative.” Victory brought local schools some $450 million a year in new funding, much of it discretionary. Unsurprisingly, the union-backed school boards often used the extra cash to fatten teachers’ salaries—one reason that California’s teachers are the country’s highest-paid, even though the state’s total spending per student is only slightly higher than the national average. “The problem is that there is no organized constituency for parents and students in California,” says Lanny Ebenstein, a former member of the Santa Barbara Board of Education and an economics professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “No one says to a board of education, ‘We want more of that money to go for classrooms, for equipment.’ ”

With its growing financial strength, the CTA gained the ability to shape public opinion. In 1996, for instance, the union—casting covetous eyes on surplus tax revenues from the state’s economic boom—spent $1 million on an ad campaign advocating smaller classes. Californians began seeing the state’s classrooms as overcrowded, according to polls. So Governor Pete Wilson earmarked some three-quarters of a billion dollars annually to cut class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. The move produced no discernible improvements in student performance, but it did require a hiring spree that inflated CTA rolls and produced a teacher shortage. (The union drew the line, however, when it faced the threat of increased accountability. Two years later, when Wilson offered funds to reduce class sizes even more but attached the money to new oversight mechanisms, the CTA spent $6 million to defeat the measure, living up to Wilson’s assessment of it as a “relentless political machine.”)

During this contentious period, the CTA and its local affiliates learned to play hardball, frequently shutting down classes with strikes. The state estimated that in 1989 alone, these strikes cost California students collectively some 7.2 million classroom days. Los Angeles teachers provoked outrage that year by reportedly urging their students to support them by skipping school. After journalist Debra Saunders noted in LA’s Daily News that the striking teachers were already well paid, the union published her home phone number in its newsletter and urged members to call her.

Four years later, the CTA reached new heights of thuggishness after a business-backed group began a petition to place a school-choice initiative on the state ballot. In a union-backed effort, teachers shadowed signature gatherers in shopping malls and aggressively dissuaded people from signing up. The tactic led to more than 40 confrontations and protests of harassment by signature gatherers. “They get in between the signer and the petition,” the head of the initiative said. “They scream at people. They threaten people.” CTA’s top official later justified the bullying: some ideas “are so evil that they should never even be presented to the voters,” he said.

The rise of the white-collar CTA provides a good example of a fundamental political shift that took place everywhere in the labor movement. In the aftermath of World War II, at the height of its influence, organized labor was dominated by private workers; as a result, union members were often culturally conservative and economically pro-growth. But as government workers have come to dominate the movement, it has moved left. By the mid-nineties, the CTA was supporting causes well beyond its purview as a collective bargaining agent for teachers. In 1994, for instance, it opposed an initiative that prohibited illegal immigrants from using state government programs and another that banned the state from recognizing gay marriages performed elsewhere. Some union members began to complain that their dues were helping to advance a political agenda that they disagreed with. “They take our money and spend it as they see fit,” says Larry Sand, founder of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, an organization of teachers and former teachers opposed to the CTA’s noneducational politicking.

Public-safety workers—from cops and sheriffs to prison guards and highway-patrol officers—are the second part of the public-union triumvirate ruling California. In a state that has embraced some of the toughest criminal laws in the country, police and prison guards’ unions own a precious currency: their political endorsements, which are highly sought after by candidates wanting to look tough on crime. But the qualification that the unions usually seek in candidates isn’t, in fact, toughness on crime; it’s willingness to back better pay and benefits for public-safety workers.

The pattern was set in 1972, when State Assemblyman E. Richard Barnes—an archconservative former Navy chaplain who had fought pension and fringe-benefit enhancements sought by government workers, including police officers and firefighters—ran for reelection. Barnes had one of the toughest records on crime of any state legislator. Yet cops and firefighters walked his district, telling voters that he was soft on criminals. He narrowly lost. As the Orange County Register observed years later, the election sent a message to all legislators that resonates even today: “Your career is at risk if you dare fiddle with police and fire” pay and benefits.

The state’s prison guards’ union has exploited a similar message. Back in 1980, when the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) won the right to represent prison guards in contract negotiations, it was a small fraternal organization of about 1,600 members. But as California’s inmate population surged and the state went on a prison-building spree—constructing 22 new institutions over 25 years—union membership expanded to 17,000 in 1988, 25,000 by 1997, and 31,000 today. Union resources rose correspondingly, with a budget soaring to $25 million or so, supporting a staff 70 deep, including 20 lawyers.

Deploying those resources, the union started to go after politicians who didn’t support higher salaries and benefits for its members and an ever-expanding prison system. In 2004, for example, the CCPOA spent $200,000—a whopping amount for a state assembly race—to unseat Republican Phil Wyman of Tehachapi. His sin: advocating the privatization of some state prisons in order to save money. “The amount of money that unions are pouring into local races is staggering,” says Joe Armendariz, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. A recent mayoral and city council election in Santa Barbara, with a population of just 90,000, cost more than $1 million, he observes.

The symbiotic relationship between the CCPOA and former governor Gray Davis provides a remarkable example of the union’s power. In 1998, when Davis first ran for governor, the union threw him its endorsement. Along with those much-needed law-and-order credentials, it also gave Davis $1.5 million in campaign contributions and another $1 million in independent ads supporting him. Four years later, as Davis geared up for reelection, he awarded the CCPOA a stunning 34 percent pay hike over five years, increasing the average base salary of a California prison guard from about $50,000 a year to $65,000—and this at a time when the unemployment rate in the state had been rising for nearly a year and a half and government revenues had been falling. The deal cost the state budget an additional $2 billion over the life of the contract. A union official described it admiringly as “the best labor contract in the history of California.” Eight weeks after the offer, the union donated $1 million to Davis’s reelection campaign.

Even cops who run for office have felt the wrath of public-safety unions. Allan Mansoor served 16 years as a deputy sheriff in Orange County but angered police unions by publicly backing an initiative that would have required them to gain their members’ permission to spend dues on political activities. When the conservative Mansoor ran successfully for city council several years back in Costa Mesa, local cops and firefighters poured resources into helping his more liberal opponents. “I didn’t like seeing my dues go to candidates like Davis, so I supported efforts to curb that,” Mansoor says. “Union leaders didn’t like it, so they endorsed my opponents by claiming they were tougher on crime than I was.”

Even more troubling are the activities of the California Organization of Police and Sheriffs (COPS), a lobbying and advocacy group that has raised tens of millions of dollars from controversial soliciting campaigns. In one, COPS fund-raisers reportedly called residents of heavily immigrant neighborhoods and threatened to cut off their 911 services unless they donated. In another, a COPS fund-raiser reportedly offered to shave points off Californians’ driving records in exchange for donations. The group has dunned politicians, too. In 1998, it began publishing a voter guide in which candidates paid to be included. Pols considered the money well spent because of the importance of a COPS endorsement—or at least the appearance of one. “We all use them [COPS] for cover, especially in years when law enforcement is a big issue in elections,” one state senator, Santa Clara’s John Vasconcellos, admitted to the Orange County Register. “It stopped the right wing from calling me soft on crime.”

The results of union pressure are clear. In most states, cops and other safety officers can typically retire at 50 with a pension of about half their final working salary; in California, they often receive 90 percent of their pay if they retire at the same age. The state’s munificent disability system lets public-safety workers retire with rich pay for a range of ailments that have nothing to do with their jobs, costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. California’s prison guards are the nation’s highest-paid, a big reason that spending on the state’s prison system has blasted from less than 4.3 percent of the budget in 1986 to more than 11 percent today.

California’s third big public-union player is the state wing of the SEIU, the nation’s fastest-growing union, whose chief, Andy Stern, earned notoriety by visiting the White House 22 times during the first six months of the Obama administration. Founded in 1921 as a janitors’ union, the SEIU slowly transformed itself into a labor group representing government and health-care workers—especially health-care workers paid by government medical programs like Medicaid. In 1984, the California State Employees Association, which represented many state workers, decided to affiliate with the SEIU. Today, the SEIU represents 700,000 California workers—more than a third of its nationwide membership. Of those, 350,000 are government employees: noninstructional workers in schools across the state; all non-public-safety workers in California’s burgeoning prisons; 2,000 doctors, mostly residents and interns, at state-run hospitals; and many others at the local, county, and state levels.

The SEIU’s rise in California illustrates again how modern labor’s biggest victories take place in back rooms, not on picket lines. In the late 1980s, the SEIU began eyeing a big jackpot: tens of thousands of home health-care workers being paid by California’s county-run Medicaid programs. The SEIU initiated a long legal effort to have those workers, who were independent contractors, declared government employees. When the courts finally agreed, the union went about organizing them—an easy task because governments rarely contest organizing campaigns, not wanting to seem anti-worker. The SEIU’s biggest victory was winning representation for 74,000 home health-care workers in Los Angeles County, the largest single organizing drive since the United Auto Workers unionized General Motors in 1937. Taxpayers paid a steep price: home health-care costs became the fastest-growing part of the Los Angeles County budget after the SEIU bargained for higher wages and benefits for these new recruits. The SEIU also organized home health-care workers in several other counties, reaching a whopping statewide total of 130,000 new members.

The SEIU’s California numbers have given it extraordinary resources to pour into political campaigns. The union’s major locals contributed a hefty $20 million in 2005 to defeat a series of initiatives to cap government growth and rein in union power. The SEIU has also spent millions over the years on initiatives to increase taxes, sometimes failing but on other occasions succeeding, as with a 2004 measure to impose a millionaires’ tax to finance more mental-health spending. With an overflowing war chest and hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers, the SEIU has been instrumental in getting local governments to pass living-wage laws in several California cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco. And the union has also used its muscle in campaigns largely out of the public eye, as in 2003, when it pressured the board of CalPERS, the giant California public-employee pension fund, to stop investing in companies that outsourced government jobs to private contractors.snip
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