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The Government Union Political Class: Today California, Tomorrow America

Government unions in California collect and spend over $1.0 billion per year. That’s just government unions. That’s just California. They use a small fraction of this money to engage in collective bargaining. They use about a third of it to engage in politics – that’s nearly $700 million per election cycle. The rest, well over a billion per election cycle, goes to “educate” the public.

A billion dollars a year to pursue the government union agenda. You can argue this figure. Maybe it’s $800 million. Maybe, and more likely, it’s $1.2 billion. Nobody knows for sure, because government unions are required to reveal even less about their operations than private unions or public corporations. In an attempt to obtain more accurate membership and dues numbers, we spoke with an expert on public sector unions at Pepperdine University. He said that California has over 6,000 “locals” that have organized government workers into unions. In many cases, each of these locals files their own 990 form with the IRS. Our own analysis, stated in a California Policy Center study “Understanding the Financial Disclosure Requirements of Public Sector Unions,” summed it up as follows:

To amalgamate the financial information provided by literally thousands of local public sector union affiliates across every department and agency throughout California’s 478 incorporated cities and 57 counties would be a herculean task, but it is reasonable to assume that the total annual dues revenue and expenditures of California’s public sector unions is at least twice the total derived from totaling these 16 major organization’s 990 data. Put another way, at the end of 2010, following a lively election season, California’s public sector unions, collectively, were probably still sitting on well over $200 million in cash, and had just spent nearly $1.0 billion dollars on collective bargaining and political activity. It is left to the reader to ascertain why any spending to pursue the agenda of organized government workers is not intrinsically political, but dissecting actual political spending from the sparse data provided in 990 forms is an exercise in futility.

With this kind of money, you can hire a full time, professional army. And they have. When political candidates who are not backed by government unions decide to run for office, they either have to be independently wealthy, or they have to spend nearly all of their time soliciting donations. Campaign “reform” has made it impossible for a candidate to find just one wealthy donor, so unless they’re personally rich, they are in perpetual fundraising mode. The government union backed candidates, on the other hand, are often recruited to run for office by these unions, and have to do nothing more than sign a few forms that have been prepared for them in advance. The unions then run a turn-key operation to put them in office, telling them what to say and where to appear.

That’s not how politics is supposed to work in a democracy. No wonder government unions have taken over nearly every city, county and school district in California, along with the state legislature.

When it comes to “educational” efforts, the government unions spend even more money than they spend on direct political action. From Sacramento outwards to cities, counties and school districts, they hire the most capable consultants that money can buy. The finest attorneys, the most creative and capable public relations professionals, academic experts, polling wizards, media gurus. And, of course, these government unions fund “Think Tanks” that promote their agenda relentlessly.

Without this billion-dollar-a-year torrent of money, political advocacy and policy analysis works the way it’s supposed to work. Political campaigns and policy shops alike are required to present their vision to donors who then decide whether or not to support them. But when these interests, sustained by capricious pittances, are pitted against the government union machine, the outcome is predictable. They lose. And lose. And lose. California is Exhibit A for how a democracy is destroyed by a government that serves itself.

If there wasn’t an intrinsic conflict of interests between what government unions advocate – more power for government agencies and more wealth for government workers, with the welfare of private citizens a secondary concern – perhaps none of this would matter. But California, where government unions have ruled for decades, is a trendsetting travesty of how a democracy is supposed to function. It is a state where appeasing the government unions is a prerequisite for success in business. It is a state where giving up and living on government entitlements is increasingly preferable to trying to make a living when everything – housing, transportation, energy, water, and perpetually rising taxes – is punitively expensive thanks to bad policy choices. And it is a state where unionized government workers earn pay and benefits that average twice as much as what private sector workers earn, rendering them relatively immune to the consequences of their unionized government agenda.

This is America’s future if government unions are not stopped.

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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.