California unions show rare impotence as they deal with coming Supreme Court ruling

By Steven Greenhut
March 7, 2018

Sacramento — California’s public-sector unions are so accustomed to getting their way in the state Capitol that it’s almost entertaining watching them respond to a coming U.S. Supreme Court decision that is likely to slash their political and economic power. They are sponsoring a variety of bills designed to mute that decision, but there’s surprisingly little they can actually accomplish.

In the Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees case, the court is deciding whether public employees in non-right-to-work states such as California may opt out of paying dues even for collective-bargaining purposes. Since 1977, workers have been allowed to withhold dues for a union’s direct political activities, but not for anything related to negotiating their contracts. The case could spell the end to mandatory unionization.

Last year, the state passed a new law granting unions the right to provide orientation seminars at the workplace, where they can convince – some say pressure – employees to join the union. That was designed to minimize the impact of Janus. Unions have also been sending out membership applications with so-called “trap language,” which traps workers into paying union dues even if the Supreme Court ultimately decides that they are not required to do so.

This year, the Legislature is at it again. Assembly Concurrent Resolution 185 by Assemblyman Mike Gipson, D-Los Angeles, mentions the Janus case and “recognizes unions and their tireless efforts to represent workers across all industries, to educate membership and encourage their full participation in society, and to strengthen the labor movement as a fundamental element of a healthy democracy.”

Note that the measure is a resolution – one of those symbolic gestures that allow lawmakers to make a point, but has no binding effect. It’s the latest show of impotence by usually muscular public-sector unions. In reality, the Legislature can do little more than posture in the face of a potential Supreme Court ruling that has far more weight than anything that comes out of Sacramento.

Lawmakers are indeed proposing some measures that are more substantive than ACR 185, but even those are limited in scope. For instance, Assembly Bill 2154 by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, would expand union members’ “release time” to allow for recruitment efforts – all on the taxpayers’ dime. The measure would “require these public employers to grant a reasonable number of employee representatives of the exclusive representative reasonable time off without loss of compensation or other benefits ….”

If passed, the bill represents an infuriating misuse of taxpayer money. Why should any state employee have paid time off to engage in activities that benefit any type of private organization, let alone those that lobby the Legislature? Nevertheless, its scope is limited. If the Supreme Court tosses out mandatory union payments, these union organizers would still have to gain the consent of the employees before diverting funds from their paychecks.

A recent CALmatters report explained that unions also are crafting bills that would shield “union members’ contact information from the public to make it harder for anti-union groups to reach them.” That’s ironic given that the unions this year are backing a bill that would require the state to hand over the private information of non-union workers in the private home-care industry to unions as a means to help unions organize those workers.

Another likely bill would allow “unions to charge non-members who use services such as arbitration or a labor representative to help them through a disciplinary process,” according to the publication. Furthermore, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra provided a friend-of-the-court brief in the Janus case arguing against any change in the current system, which was established by that 1977 ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.

Becerra explained his position in a recent San Diego Union-Tribune column: “My fellow state leaders and I know that having strong and effective unions on the other side of the bargaining table can help reduce costly strikes and keep public services running.” By better understanding workers’ needs, “we can address them proactively, before a grievance turns into a strike. It is that stability that has helped California become the sixth-largest economy in the world.”

This is pabulum, of course. Even the idea that unions sit on “the other side of the bargaining table” from elected officials is ludicrous. In reality, the state’s public-sector unions bargain with government officials who also are members of unions. The ultimate decisions are typically made by politicians who were elected with the muscle of these unions.

And the idea that California’s prosperity is due to union influence is even more ridiculous. The operative word here would be “despite.” Public-sector unions’ extreme influence in the state Legislature has led to grossly underfunded pension systems and cutbacks and crowd-outs in government services as localities have to shave costs to pay for growing pension debt. Outsized union power also has made it impossible to secure necessary reforms in schools and other agencies.

Here again we see our state Democratic officials using their official positions on behalf of these powerful special-interest groups. It’s unsettling, but ultimately means little. The California Attorney General’s Office has no influence over the nation’s highest court. Even if these  bills become law, they simply give unions additional privileges to lobby for members. If the court rules as expected, however, public employees will still need to give their consent.

That’s the core issue in Janus. Illinois municipal worker Mark Janus argues – correctly, I believe – that it’s a violation of the First Amendment to force him to pay dues to an organization that he does not support. The argument is that all things a union does are inherently political. For instance, if unions achieve unsustainable pension benefits at the bargaining table, such benefits mean that fewer public funds are available for other priorities. Shouldn’t we all be free to choose?

CALmatters interviewed a union official who said that a decision for Mark Janus could reduce union membership in California by 5 percent to 30 percent. That would be a large hit for them, but the government isn’t supposed to protect the financial interests of private groups. It is supposed to protect the rights of the citizenry. Some unions have taken a constructive approach by preparing to improve their outreach efforts. That should be the model rather than passing these unfair bills.

Indeed, the freedom of association – as opposed to compelled payments – can bolster the rights of workers and encourage reforms that are best for union organizations. That’s the American way. Instead of fighting it with nettlesome but impotent measures to undermine the high court, California unions and their allied politicians need to learn to respect the rights of California’s government workers.

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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