California's Government Unions Collect $1.0 Billion Per Year

“If you say there is an elephant in the room, you mean that there is an obvious problem or difficult situation that people do not want to talk about.”
–  Cambridge Dictionaries Online

If you study California’s legislature, it doesn’t take long to learn there’s an elephant in both chambers, bigger and badder than every other beast. And considering the immense size of that elephant, and the power it wields, it doesn’t get talked about much.

Because that gigantic elephant is public employee unions, and politicians willing to confront them, categorically, in every facet of their monstrous power and reach, are almost nonexistent.

Government reformers and transparency advocates are fond of attacking “money in politics.” They attack “soft money” and “dark money.” Most of the time, these reformers are on the so-called political left, concerned that “rich billionaires” and “out-of-state corporations” have too much political influence. They are misguided and manipulated in this sentiment. Because billionaires contribute to both major political parties (and both political wings) roughly equally, and the largest corporations – in state and out of state – play ball with the government unions because, as monopolies or aspiring monopolies, large corporations and government unions have an identity of interests that far outweighs any motive for conflict. At the state and local level in California, there is no amount of money, anywhere, that comes close to the sums that are deployed by government unions to control our government.

Thanks to a lack of transparency so thick that public corporations, and even private sector unions, are required to submit far more publicly available reports on their operations than public sector unions, it is almost impossible to estimate how many government union members there are in California. From the U.S. Census we know that California’s “full-time equivalent” state workforce numbers 397,348, for local governments, 1,313,344, meaning there are – on a full time basis – about 1.7 million state and local workers in California. But how many of them pay dues? And what is their total statewide revenue?

If you turn to the 990 forms that government unions file with the IRS, you’ll note that the California Teachers Association’s 990 reported “dues revenue” of $172.3 million in 2012. You’ll also know they were sitting on $100 million in cash and securities, net of all long and short term liabilities and not including their fixed assets and real estate. But that’s just the financials for the CTA’s state office. If you search for “California Teachers Association” on Guidestar, here’s the message you get on the results screen: “Your search for California Teachers Association produced 1,083 results.”

As we noted in a 2012 CPC study entitled “Understanding the Financial Disclosure Requirements of Public Sector Unions:”

Most of the statewide unions, such as the CTA, the CSEA, the CFT, and the CPF, collect revenue from members through their local affiliates, which themselves retain most of the money for local collective bargaining and political expenditures. There are over 1,300 CTA local affiliates, 20 (public sector) SEIU local affiliates, 42 AFSME local affiliates, 45 AFT local affiliates,  several hundred CSEA (School Employees) local affiliates, and hundreds of CPF (Firefighter) local affiliates. Then there are federations of various unions, such as the California State Employees Association and the Peace Officers Research Association of California, which also collect revenue from members through local affiliates.

There are over 6,000 local government union organizations in California, each of them an independent financial entity, each of them merely required to file a minimal 990 form that barely, and with a maddening lack of clarity, discloses financial transfers between entities. Against this opacity, there is no precise way to learn just how much money California’s public sector unions collect every year, no way to determine how many members they’ve got, no way to determine their annual dues assessments.

An article published nearly five years ago on UnionWatch, “Public Sector Unions and Political Spending,” estimates the total annual dues revenue of California’s public sector unions at $1.0 billion per year. While the number of state and local government workers has actually declined slightly since 2010, the percentage of unionized state and local government workers has increased, as has their average pay upon which dues are calculated. That estimate, $1.0 billion per year, is probably still accurate.

Behind closed doors and off the record, Democrats resent government union power with increasing intensity. But apart from an isolated whisper here, a passing utterance there, they are silent. Just like their Republican colleagues who grasp for their own pathetically minute share of government union contributions, they fear the wrath of the elephant in the room at the same time as they keep taking the money.

*   *   *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

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