Practical Reforms to "Right-Size" Government Unions

Rolling back the power of government unions in a state like California is almost impossible. Their power has been unchallenged for so long that they now virtually control the state legislature, and their grip on local politicians extends to nearly every city, county, school district and special district.

But there have been reforms in some places, and they can serve as examples for municipalities throughout the state. Several Orange County cities have tried transparency ordinances of variable effectiveness. San Jose has restricted the use of binding arbitration. Voters in San Jose and San Diego have both passed pension reform measures. Cities scattered throughout California have grappled with unions over project labor agreements and prevailing wage laws. And in the courts, reformers have won the first round in the Vergara case, which challenges union work rules governing teacher dismissals, layoff preferences and tenure requirements.

Against the remorseless advance of the government union agenda, these and other measures are decidedly incremental. They are often overwhelmed by deceptive union measures that carry the reform label but are actually reactionary shams, designed to turn back the clock. Or they are challenged in court by an avalanche of suits and counter-suits designed to eviscerate reforms that voters overwhelmingly supported.

The game is rigged, but the nonpartisan hunger for quality public education and civic financial health is universal. Sooner or later, the will of the people will always prevail. Here then is a partial list of public sector union reforms that have been tried, or should be tried, in every city and county in California:

(1)  “Right-to-Work” for all government workers:

This would forbid government unions from getting a government employee fired simply because they didn’t want to join a union. Right-to-work is especially compelling in government organizations, where altruistic individuals who want to become public servants may not wish to financially support the political agenda of their union. Because government unions negotiate over work rules that determine how we manage our public institutions, virtually all union activity is inherently political. Right-to-work in government organizations therefore not only forces unions to be more accountable to their members, but is based on an employee’s constitutional right to free speech.

(2)  “Worker’s Choice” for all government workers:

This law takes right-to-work a step further, and should be implemented in tandem with right-to-work. One objection that unions make to right-to-work laws is that it allows those workers who did not join the union to become “free riders” who enjoy the alleged benefits of union representation but don’t pay any dues. “Worker’s Choice” allows workers under a collective bargaining agreement to opt-out and represent themselves individually in their wage and benefit negotiations with their employer. Something that professionals throughout the private sector do as a matter of course.

(3)  Union Recertification:

This would require government unions to regularly hold a “recertification” election, preferably once every year. The election would require secret ballots and participation by a quorum (usually a majority) of employees in the collective bargaining unit. Most government employees in California started working long after the unions took over. They should be able to decide if they want a union to continue to represent them. Recertification, like right-to-work and worker’s choice, is a practice that would ensure greater accountability by unions, because if they lose the annual election, they would be decertified and could not represent those workers until regaining their approval in an election to be held at least a year later.

(4)  Reduced Scope of Collective Bargaining:

This reform is recommended in order to provide elected officials the latitude to equitably balance the interests of taxpayers and government workers. It gives them the latitude to cope effectively with budget deficits caused by economic downturns that have already affected private sector workers. Limiting negotiations on compensation to current benefits, for example, would mean that elected officials retain the authority to modify pension benefit formulas. Not only budget issues but work rule issues could be restricted under this reform. For example, “last-in-first-out” layoff rules which favor seniority over merit could be scrapped.

(5)  Pension Reform:

The most likely way to implement effective pension reform – which, ironically, is the only way to rescue the defined benefit plan for government workers – is to revise the California constitution via a state ballot initiative. Such a reform, at the least, would give elected officials or voters the right to reduce pension benefit accruals earned by active employees for future work. It would require active employees to pay 50% of their normal contribution, calculated at a rate of return permissable under ERISA statutes, i.e., a truly “risk-free” rate of return. It would impose stricter curbs on spiking and double dipping that would be harder to circumvent in court. And it would provide tools to be implemented to ensure system solvency in a financial state of emergency, such as suspension of COLAs for retirees (retroactively if necessary), retroactive reduction in pension benefit annual accruals for active workers, raising of the pension-eligible retirement age, and a ceiling on benefits.

(6)  “Paycheck Protection”:

This would require unions to obtain permission, preferably annually, before deducting the political portion of their dues from worker paychecks. California’s government workers currently assert their right to not pay the political portion of their dues – notwithstanding the argument that ALL dues paid to a government union are used for essentially political purposes – via a cumbersome “opt-out” process. This reform would change that to an annual “opt-in” process, making it much easier for government workers to avoid having to support the political agenda of their unions.

(7)  “Dues Checkoff”:

Under this reform, government payroll departments would no longer be required (or allowed) to withhold union dues from government employee paychecks and turn that money automatically over to the union. Instead unions would be required to bill and collect dues without relying on payroll withholding, just like other membership organizations. This is particularly justified in the case of government unions, under the assumption that the government should not be acting as a collection agent for a private organization.

(8)  Clarification of “Public Employee”:

This is an interesting reform that can be interpreted in two ways. On one hand, by broadening the description to include government contractors, then in conjunction with other reforms, appropriate regulations restricting inappropriate union activity can be extended, for example, not only to home health care workers, but to construction contractors whose unions negotiate for project labor agreements and prevailing wage agreements. On the other hand, narrowing the description of what constitutes a public employee can counter the aggressive expansion of government unions in states such as California where there are virtually no checks on government union power. Either way, the principle governing the application of this reform would be that unions that operate in the public sector should be subject to more restrictions than those unions that operate in the private sector.

(9)  Transparency in Negotiations:

Lost on most voters is the fact that government unions epitomize the so-called abuses of the elite establishment. Powerful corporate and financial interests make deals with government unions in an Alliance of The Big. More regulations drive out innovative commercial competition at the same time as they expand unionized government. Transparency in negotiations, obviously, means that unions have to disclose their wage and benefit demands for public review. But it means much more than that. Disclosure of their financial and operating reports, their membership dues, their internal leadership election processes. And more than anything, a spotlight on how government unions collude with the most powerful and corrupt among the private sector elites they claim they are protecting us from.

(10)  Ban on Political Activity:

Public employee unions, if they should exist at all, should not be permitted to use their resources to conduct any sort of political lobbying or campaigning. There is an inherent conflict between the agenda of unionized government and the public interest. Government unions, by definition, want to increase their membership and want to increase the pay and benefits of their membership. That causes more government to trump good government. It causes more spending to trump efficient spending. At its root, it means that failure of government programs constitutes success for government unions, because their solution is inevitably to call for more government spending. Political activity by government union should be illegal.

Perhaps the most important point to be made in the context of these ten recommendations is that they are utterly nonpartisan. Unions in the public sector bear little relation to unions in the private sector, for reasons that are well documented: They don’t operate in agencies that have to make a profit, which limits how much private sector unions can ask for from their employers. They elect their own bosses through massive campaign spending, something unheard of in the private sector unions whose management is determined by shareholders. And they run the government, which allows them to make common cause with the most powerful and corrupt among the private sector elites. What part of this is partisan?

Californians of all political persuasions are going to eventually have to face the reality that government unions are the reason our schools are failing students and parents, and the reason we can’t balance our budgets and control our debt. These reforms are all ways to begin to reduce the power of government unions, which will be a giant step towards making California’s state and local governments truly accountable to the interests of all workers – not just government workers.

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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

1 reply
  1. john moore says:

    In the 1980’s the federal government disallowed collective bargaining about salary and benefits, leaving it for “working conditions.” In Ca., unless it follows the federal practice, unions will continue to award it the majority of revenues, and the decline in education, home ownership, protections for families and routine govt. services will lead to a Dickensian culture.
    Even now, many fireman earn more than MD’s and judges(Richmond fire dist-10 earned over $400,000 last year). There is no doubt that if the republican party would lead the way on the issue of abolishing collective bargaining about salaries and benefits, it could retake control of state and local govt. in Ca.. Instead, those republicans in office are content to lick the boots of the unions.In my view, it is all or nothing to obtain pension reform. That means eliminating collective bargaining about salaries and benefits(FDR was right on this issue-it has destroyed democratic government in most states).

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