Bill to unionize Capitol staffers is ridiculous, but cynics might find a bright side

Bill to unionize Capitol staffers is ridiculous, but cynics might find a bright side


If you believe that mandatory unionization is a solution to almost every state problem rather than the prime cause of California governmental dysfunction, then you’ll love an idea that one of the Legislature’s most union-friendly lawmakers is touting.

“I will be introducing a bill this year to allow our legislative staff to unionize,” wrote Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego, in a tweet earlier this month. “Workers who are at will, have no real protections.”

Government employees in California’s myriad state and local bureaucracies are forced to join collective-bargaining units, which secure generous pay packages and protect them from disciplinary actions and firings. By contrast, staffers who work for legislators and committees in the state Capitol are “at will” hires who, like most people in the private sector, can be fired or reassigned based on their work performance and the decisions of their bosses.

Unionization, especially in government, offers myriad problems. For instance, one of the main reasons that California cannot improve the cost effectiveness of its agencies, or get rid of dead wood within the agencies, or try innovative ways to improve public services is because union contracts make it impossible to do so. Work rules are set in stone. Firing a poor performing employee is a laborious and costly process, so agency heads rarely try.

The California public schools, for instance, have what are known as “rubber rooms,” where teachers deemed unfit for the classroom while away their days while their cases are adjudicated through a Rube-Goldberg-like system of hearings. The state auditor found that Caltrans, which spends far more than other states in building and upgrading the roads and freeways, has thousands of costly employees with virtually nothing to do.

These are but two examples of what happens when unions represent government employees. And they also flex their political muscle to, say, derail reforms to the pension and retiree medical systems – reforms that would help stretch public budgets. So what happens if union work rules are applied to California state Capitol staffers?

It’s likely to gum up the entire Capitol legislative process. After all, these aren’t meant as lifetime jobs. Lawmakers have term limits and come and go from office. They run for new posts. Their staffers have mobile jobs, as well. They jump around to different legislators’ offices. If, say, a chief of staff isn’t doing a good job promoting a lawmakers’ particular political priorities, it seems only fair that the lawmaker could go in a different direction.

The idea of unionization in the civil service is a simple one. Those are permanent administrative jobs whereby the employees are supposed to have protection against the political authorities. The entire civil-service concept was meant as a bulwark against the kind of machine politics where new administrations packed the bureaucracies with political hacks, family members and campaign contributors rather than professionals who administer government programs with impartiality. Reality isn’t as noble as the theory, and the civil service can provide sufficient protections without union membership, but the civil service is a far cry from the Capitol workplace. The civil service is supposed to stand athwart transitory political changes. But the political system is, by design, transitory and reflective of the ever-changing desires of the electorate.

Let’s say I’m a chief of staff for a state senator and I’m doing my job – but not implementing the political prerogatives of the elected official who runs the office? What if I decide to implement my rights to, say, 12 weeks of parental leave in the middle of budget or policy season? That would thwart the legislator’s entire political agenda. These are small offices, not large bureaucracies where an underling can be moved in during an extended absence.

Or here’s an even more troubling example: Let’s say a Democratic Assembly member wins a seat now held by a Republican. If those staff jobs are protected by a union, that would mean that the current holders of those jobs essentially have a right to them. But a newly elected Democrat could not implement progressive political priorities if her staff members are conservative holdovers who are at odds with her political mission.

Taken it to its logical extreme, how could Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown have functioned if his top political staffers came from Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration. The Gonzalez Fletcher proposal won’t deal with gubernatorial staffers, but the concept is the same. It blurs the lines between politics and civil service. Furthermore, it will also dramatically increases the cost of running the Legislature, as union reps negotiate for even higher pay and benefit levels.

Within the Capitol, some staffers are longtime “noncombatants” who make the trains run on time regardless of what party or faction is in charge. But many others are partisan political hires. That’s by design. A unionized work force would not allow lawmakers to make those distinctions. All employees could protect their jobs regardless of shifting political winds. The federal courts have long upheld the idea that politicians have a right to hire whomever they choose, given their unique function of implementing the will of the voters.

Assemblywoman Gonzalez Fletcher has yet to introduce specific language and her office did not provide a response to my questions by press time, but she appears serious about moving forward with legislation. One argument she makes in favor of unionization is that it would provide whistleblower protections for staffers who allege misbehavior by their bosses, in the light of the troubling Capitol sex-harassment scandals.

“Whistleblower protections can’t protect people who are at-will employees,” she told Capitol Public Radio. “I mean, it can help – you can’t be fired for whistleblowing, but you can come into work and be fired for wearing yellow.”

But a unionized work force would provide protections for the accused as well as the accusers. In the unionized workplace, it’s often hardest to get rid of alleged abusers – as the example of those public-school rubber rooms makes clear. State legislators could easily provide additional whistleblower protections for all employees to deal with this ongoing and serious scandal. They could address that problem without destroying the fundamental nature of the Capitol work force.

Then again, cynics might see the resulting disruption as a bright side. If unions exert control over the state Capitol, legislators will get a taste of the counterproductive and overly burdensome union-backed rules they impose on the rest of the state. They will have less money for staffing. The Capitol would become, ahem, less effective in passing questionable bills. It’s an idea that would create much mischief, which is why I suspect that political self-interest will dispose of this notion rather quickly.

Steven Greenhut is contributing editor for the California Policy Center. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at

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