On October 24th I observed in the WSJ that private and public unions were increasingly in conflict this election season, particularly as left-leaning public union leaders align with members of the Democratic coalition like environmentalists, whose no-growth economic policies cost blue-collar workers jobs. One example I didn’t discuss in that piece is a campaign transpiring in California, where one of the state’s major public unions has joined with environmentalists to oppose a water bond that blue-collar labor groups have allied with business concerns to pass.
Proposition 1 is hardly an ideal infrastructure spending plan. It doesn’t devote enough money to water storage (dams and reservoirs), and it’s “greener” than previous proposed bonds (that is, it sets significant money aside for conservation efforts, though California isn’t going to conserve it’s way out of its current water woes).
But in a state suffering from water shortages in crucial agricultural areas, the plan to raise $7 billion for water projects has won support from an array of groups, including the Northern California Carpenters Regional Council, the SW Regional Council Of Carpenters, the Northern California District Council Of Laborers, and the The State Building And Construction Trades Council of CA.
Meanwhile, however, prominent among the opponents is California’s chapter of AFSCME, which is distributing a voting guide listing its opposition to the ballot measure, along with a host of environmental groups, who abhor the artificial lakes created by California’s dams and envision returning the flow of water to some natural state reminiscent of 19th century California, as Victor Davis Hanson has noted in City Journal. The environmentalists have succeeded in court partially blocking man-made diversions of water to farmers and drying up agriculture jobs in the process. Future development is also in doubt without better water infrastructure.
The larger issue is what role public unions have in spending members’ money for campaigns that go beyond labor’s purview representing the bargaining interests of government workers. As I wrote several years ago, as the labor movement has come to be dominated by public sector workers, it has moved increasingly to the left on social issues that often have nothing to do with representing their own workers. One shift that has increasingly put public unions in conflict with blue-collar types has been government unions’ embrace of environmentalism.
We’ve seen in it a number of other places recently.Unions like the Communications Workers of America, which represents government employees in New Jersey and other places, and the Amalgamated Transit Union, whose members are largely public sector transit workers, have joined environmentalists to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, which trade unions have been lobbying to get built. In 2012, the Laborers International Union dropped out of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of environmental groups and unions like CWA and SEIU, over their opposition to Keystone.
Even the AFL-CIO has withheld its endorsement of the pipeline. As one labor leader told theAmerican Prospect magazine in April of 2013, “In my 43 years in the labor movement, I can’t recall another time that AFL-CIO has remained neutral on any jobs program.” But the AFL-CIO, headed today by Richard Trumka, a former president of a public sector union (AFSCME), is a very different union from the one that George Meany once ran.
Some private unions have fought back aggressively. Chris Christie’s Democratic opponent in 2013, Barbara Buono, was universally backed by public unions and also earned endorsements from some of the nation’s biggest environmental groups after she promised to press ahead with efforts to lower carbon emissions in NJ. Some two dozen private unions supported Christie, and the leader of one told the press that the environmentalists backing Buono represented some of the “biggest enemies of any construction worker not only in the state of New Jersey but in the entire United States of America.”
There are some conservatives who oppose Prop 1 in California, but their opposition is to what they fear is waste and overspending in the bill, and its impact on the state’s budget. That’s not why the blue-green types are opposing the bill. They’d just as soon see development shut down in California, and limiting water supplies is a sure-fire way to do that. How that is also in the interests of government workers is anyone’s guess.
Steven Malanga is City Journal’s senior editor and a Manhattan Institute senior fellow. He is author of Shakedown: The Continuing Conspiracy Against the American Taxpayer, about the bankrupting of state and local governments by a new political powerhouse led by public-sector unions. He writes about the intersection of urban economies, business communities, and public policy. This article originally appeared on PublicSectorInc. and appears here with permission.