Conservative Politicians and Public Safety Unions

As reported by investigative journalist John Hrabe, conservative gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly has accepted money from public safety unions in his legislative campaigns. His support from unions wasn’t a momentary lapse in judgement. As cited in Hrabe’s reports, his past candidacies have also benefited from independent expenditure campaigns funded by public sector unions. To not report Donnelly’s actions here would be negligent. But Donnelly’s not alone.

An assembly candidate from Orange County, conservative Keith Curry, recently lost the endorsement of the conservative Orange County Lincoln Club for accepting a donation from the Orange County Firefighters Union. Apart from the Orange County Lincoln Club’s dramatic decision to hold Curry accountable, none of this is news. While public sector unions virtually control the Democratic party in California through campaign contributions and lobbying, public safety unions spread their money around to candidates from both parties.

The consequences of allowing labor unions to take over California’s cities and counties through political spending that dwarfs every other special interest should be obvious by now. Public sector unions are the brokers and enablers of other special interests – corporate, financial and environmentalist. In all cases, these special interests have an agenda to squelch competition and secure government favors. Public sector union power makes or breaks any candidate or policy agenda from any other source. The other special interests get the message, and play ball. The results are higher prices for consumers, higher costs on small businesses, and higher taxes for everyone. Meanwhile, large corporations and financial interests profit, and public sector union members get increased pay and benefits that effectively exempt them from these harmful effects.

Such abstractions are largely irrelevant to politicians who need money to run their campaigns. They know that rank and file conservatives love public safety employees because they do tough work, fighting crime and catastrophe, facing danger every day, serving and protecting the public. Of this, one can say without irony, what’s not to like? But public safety unions take advantage of the sentiments of loyalty and respect their members have earned from the public, and have used it to elevate their pay to unaffordable heights. Libertarians, of course, can also be manipulated by public safety unions. After all, who cares if nearly 100% of a city’s budget is for police and fire services, if those are the only “legitimate” services a local government ought to provide? But should a double standard apply? Should most public sector unions be opposed, while public safety unions get a pass?

The challenge for conservatives is two-fold. First, whatever money they don’t accept from public safety unions they will have to replace through contributions from somewhere else. But there is nothing available to them that comes anywhere close to the torrent of money that perennially flows from the pockets of taxpayers into the payroll departments of government agencies and then automatically transfers into the coffers of public sector unions. In California over $1.0 billion per year is collected by public sector unions – one third used explicitly for politics, two-thirds utilized for an inherently political agenda, negotiating how we manage our public institutions and compensate our public workers. Public sector unions play in every political contest because they can, and because every election, no matter how insignificant, directly affects their interests. Nobody else even comes close.

The other challenge for conservatives is equally daunting. How do you make the entirely legitimate but woefully awkward argument that you support public safety, even though you oppose public safety unions? How do you express your appreciation for the risks and sacrifices made by public safety employees, at the same time as you argue that their pay and benefits have grown to levels we can’t afford, and in many cases are inequitably high?

One way to make this argument – along with simply stating the above points – is to remind members of public safety that even without collective bargaining and unions, they will still have significant political influence. Totally voluntary associations of public safety employees can still collect dues and donations, voluntarily, from members, and they can still engage in political spending. But without collective bargaining, at least the politicians they help elect would not be bound by the strait-jackets of labor agreements that are wreaking financial havoc on nearly every city and county in California.

There remains the larger, more abstract but very compelling argument that Donnelly, Curry, Brulte, and every other conservative in California who engages with unions ought to articulate. Unions, especially public sector unions, negotiate over-market compensation at tremendous cost to everyone else. And the intrinsic agenda of public sector unions, bigger government, is compatible with the agenda of crony capitalists, financial opportunists, and environmentalist extremists with their army of plaintiff attorneys, but this agenda hurts everyone else.

There is another, higher path, which is to dissolve public sector unions altogether, so that government workers and private workers share the same fate. This will facilitate grassroots political activism undistorted by government union agenda. Activism that will force corporations to compete, force governments to live within their means, inspire debate over government entitlements that are financially sustainable and earned according to the same formulas by all workers, increase opportunities for small businesses, and lower the cost of living for everyone.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center


When Will Conservative Candidates Stop Accepting Public Sector Union Money?, May 12, 2014

The Unholy Trinity of Public Sector Unions, Environmentalists, and Wall Street, May 6, 2013

Public Pension Solvency Requires Asset Bubbles, April 29, 2014

Construction Unions Should Fight for Infrastructure that Helps the Economy, April 1, 2014

Forming a Bipartisan Consensus for Public Sector Union Reform, January 28, 2014

A Policy Agenda for Union Reformers Stuck Inside Unions, November 5, 2013

Why Did the California State GOP Accept Donations from Public Sector Unions?, October 8, 2013

Avoiding the Oversimplifications of ‘Right Wing’ vs. ‘Left Wing’, December 16, 2013

How Unions and Bankers Work Together to Protect Unsustainable Pensions, November 26, 2013

How Public Sector Unions Skew America’s Public Safety and National Security Agenda, June 18, 2013

Should Police and Firefighters be Exempted from Union Reforms?, March 12, 2013

The Preexisting Political Advantage of Government Workers, November 27, 2012

Would ANY Public Sector Union Reform Appeal to California’s Democrats?, February 12, 2013

The Ideology of Public Sector Unions vs. Private Sector Unions, February 20, 2012

The Differences Between Public and Private Sector Unions, May 13, 2011

A Policy Agenda for Union Reformers Stuck Inside Unions

“I believe there is a different way – and that is to work with the Republican members of every labor union and help empower those Republican union members to put additional pressure on their union leadership to spend Republican dues money on Republican causes.”
–  Jim Brulte, Chairman, California State Republican Party

Well that’s one way. And if you are tasked with reviving a political party that is financially challenged, ideologically conflicted, with dwindling membership and almost no power in the state legislature, you face tough choices.

The concept of constructive engagement with members of labor unions is a good one, although recognizing the validity of the concept is not the same as endorsing specific tactics. If unions, especially public sector unions, begin to financially support both major political parties more equally, anyone who believes in limited government will be in for a long, cold winter of cascading disappointments. There will still be choices for voters. They will vote Republican to expand the security state. Or they will vote Democrat to expand the welfare state. And crony capitalists, already on the ascendancy in America, will work with the mega-unions who run the government to regulate, crush, and consolidate the competition. What remains of American pluralism will give way to a unionized, self-interested, super-sized government and a private sector utterly dominated by corporate monopolies.

Is that the “different way” that anyone wants?

Here’s another different way: Recognize that public sector unions are the primary threat to America’s economic competitiveness, democratic institutions, and civil liberties. Identify reform-minded members of public sector unions who also recognize the threat their unions represent, and provide them with resources to mount an effective campaign of internal resistance to public sector union power.

Here is a list of some policies that might inform an internal insurgency by union reformers stuck inside unions:


As public servants who believe in financially sustainable government, who believe in providing all American citizens with the same taxpayer funded formulas and incentives to earn job, health, and retirement security benefits, who believe in preserving the integrity of our elections and our democratic institutions, and to that end, hereby petition our public sector union leadership to adopt the following reforms:

(1) Public employee union membership shall be voluntary. Public sector unions cannot require any employee to join their unions, nor to pay the “agency fee,” nor to be required to participate in the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. Public sector union participation by individuals, at all levels of participation, shall be strictly opt-in and may be terminated at any time.

(2) Public sector unions cannot negotiate for long term benefits such as retirement pensions or retirement health care. To the extent public sector unions can collectively bargain for current pay and benefits, these contracts shall not extend beyond the term of office of whatever elected officials may approve these packages.

(3) Public sector unions are not permitted to use their funds for any political activity whatsoever. If public employees wish to form voluntary associations to lobby for political issues or support political candidates, they must do it entirely outside the union organization.

(4) No government agency may be used as a collection agent for union dues. Public sector unions must bill their members using their own resources, not rely on the government payroll department to collect these dues for them.

(5) Public sector unions will adhere to transparency requirements that match or exceed those that currently apply to publicly traded corporations and private sector unions, including detailed disclosure of operating expenses, membership data, sources of revenue, political contributions, and soft political and educational outreach expenses.

(6) Public sector unions must hold a recertification vote every year via secret ballot. Unless a majority of the workers eligible to be represented by a union vote to recertify the union, it will lose its rights to collectively bargain and will be dissolved.

This is constructive engagement that is founded on a principle – public sector unions must be strictly regulated if not eliminated because public sector unions broker, enable and corrupt corporate and financial power. Without their blessing and support, crony capitalists would not as successfully lobby for anti-competitive laws, pension bankers would not have a taxpayer-guaranteed virtually unlimited source of funds to invest, and bond underwriters would not be collecting commissions on hundreds of billions in bond issues necessitated by spending deficits. Public sector unions are also facilitators of authoritarianism, because every new law and every new intrusion on civil liberties is accompanied by a need for more unionized government workers (ref. “Why Bankers and Public Sector Unions are Allies, not Enemies“).

Constructive engagement founded on pragmatism – public sector unions cannot be defeated so therefore we must make them give us money too – is easy to criticize when you aren’t the one who has to make the tough decisions. But if limited government and a competitive private sector truly leads to more freedom and more upward mobility for more citizens, then accepting money from public sector unions requires moving further away from those principles.

And from a pragmatic standpoint, strategically speaking, there are millions of private sector workers whose opportunities have been stunted by the axis of unionized government, an overbuilt financial sector, and monopolistic corporations. Their political allegiance, currently up for grabs, is put at risk by accepting political contributions from public sector unions. To mitigate that, if one wishes to constructively engage with public sector unions by taking their money, they might upgrade to full spectrum constructive engagement, by circulating documents like the above petition to their full membership.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Public Policy Center.

Why Did the California State GOP Accept Donations from Public Sector Unions?

As reported in the Sacramento Bee on Sept. 26 “Teachers union, SEIU open wallets to California Republican Party,” in recent weeks the California Teachers Association donated the California GOP $15,000, the SEIU Local 1000 donated $10,000, and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association donated another $25,000. Representatives of all three of these powerful public sector unions were present at the GOP convention in Anaheim last weekend.

As a proportion of total GOP fundraising in California in 2013, $50,000 is small potatoes. Under the leadership of their new chairman Jim Brulte, the California GOP has raised over $3.0 million so far in 2013, enough to pay off their debts and put them onto viable financial footing. As a proportion of total public sector union political spending in California, $50,000 is even smaller potatoes. Just the CTA, with 325,000 members who on average pay over $1,000 per year in dues – about 30% of which is used for political activities – spends around $100 million per year to influence politics. And nearly all of the money these unions spend is to support Democratic candidates and causes.

When I had the opportunity to speak with Brulte about this, he emphasized that taking these contributions was part of a larger strategy to engage and encourage Republican members of public sector unions. He said:

“There are Republican members in almost every union I’m aware of. A significant percentage of SEIU 1000 are are Republican. 40% of the CTA members are Republicans. For years those Republicans have been trying to get their leadership – most of whom are activist Democrats – to give some of that money to Republicans. I’ve been working with the Republicans in these unions and they have been encouraging their leaders to take some of their dues money and give it to Republican causes.”

Brulte’s argument cannot be easily dismissed. If the CTA membership is 40% registered Republican in a state where only 28% of the electorate is registered Republican, then Republicans surely ought to be talking with CTA members. And it isn’t just CTA members who have a lot of Republicans in their ranks. Reportedly 30% of the SEIU 1000 membership are Republicans. And California’s powerful public safety unions also have a significant percentage of their members, if not an actual majority, who are registered Republicans. It is intriguing to reflect upon the apparent fact that a higher percentage of public sector union members are registered Republicans than the electorate at large in California.

But what sort of Republican? Social and fiscal conservatives who nonetheless would have serious reservations about doing anything to reform the unsustainable rates of pay and benefits for public employees? When I asked Brulte whether or not accepting money from public sector unions might help legitimize public sector unions, he was emphatic:

“I don’t validate or invalidate public sector unions. They are legal in California. The proponents of the attempts to change the public sector union dues mechanism have failed three times in the last two decades. I believe there is a different way – and that is to work with the Republican members of every labor union and help empower those Republican union members to put additional pressure on their union leadership to spend Republican dues money on Republican causes.”

Since taking over the state GOP earlier this year, Brulte’s focus has been on rebuilding the organization’s structure, which exited 2012 with over $500,000 of debt, and a party organization that had atrophied. As he put it:

“The Republican party has been trounced three times out of the last three elections in California because it had become a debating society rather than focusing on the nuts and bolts necessary to build an operation to help elect Republican candidates.”

When it comes to public sector union reform, to state that what may work in other states will not work in California is to state the obvious. Public sector unions own California, and they own California’s Democratic party. If you accept Brulte’s premises, his logic is unassailable. And union money going to the California Republican party, which in-turn is allocated to Republican candidates in strategic races, is not quite the same as union money going directly to the candidates. But either way, the more money the unions give, the more influence they will have. How can this play out?

If unions only donate a trickle of money to the California Republican party, at the same time as the California Republican party is aggressively reaching out to union members who are Republican, encouraging them to agitate for representative proportions of union political spending to reach Republicans, an internal struggle could ensue within these unions. It could force them to become more accountable to their members. It could disrupt their ability to pursue an extremist agenda. It could lead not only to shifts in their political priorities, but also force greater transparency and detail in their required public disclosures. It could even reform their internal election processes, resulting in leadership that more accurately represents all the members.

None of this however addresses the intrinsic conflict of interests that make the very existence of public sector unions a threat to democracy, financial sustainability, public education, efficient government, effective social programs, economic growth, and civil liberties. Unlike the public they serve, public sector unions profit from more government jobs, and more compensation for public sector workers – even if the extra spending yields no benefit to society. While pursuing this agenda, their membership operates the machinery of government, with all the potential for abuse that entails. And, of course, public sector unions are funded by taxes, rather than having to earn a profit in a competitive market.

Ultimately what California’s GOP has done further reinforces the necessity of bipartisan public sector union reform. If Democrats know that Republicans have as much to lose as they do by curbing the power of public sector unions, perhaps they will be more inclined to support reforms that unions oppose.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Public Policy Center, and the editor of