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Practical Reforms to "Right-Size" Government Unions

Rolling back the power of government unions in a state like California is almost impossible. Their power has been unchallenged for so long that they now virtually control the state legislature, and their grip on local politicians extends to nearly every city, county, school district and special district.

But there have been reforms in some places, and they can serve as examples for municipalities throughout the state. Several Orange County cities have tried transparency ordinances of variable effectiveness. San Jose has restricted the use of binding arbitration. Voters in San Jose and San Diego have both passed pension reform measures. Cities scattered throughout California have grappled with unions over project labor agreements and prevailing wage laws. And in the courts, reformers have won the first round in the Vergara case, which challenges union work rules governing teacher dismissals, layoff preferences and tenure requirements.

Against the remorseless advance of the government union agenda, these and other measures are decidedly incremental. They are often overwhelmed by deceptive union measures that carry the reform label but are actually reactionary shams, designed to turn back the clock. Or they are challenged in court by an avalanche of suits and counter-suits designed to eviscerate reforms that voters overwhelmingly supported.

The game is rigged, but the nonpartisan hunger for quality public education and civic financial health is universal. Sooner or later, the will of the people will always prevail. Here then is a partial list of public sector union reforms that have been tried, or should be tried, in every city and county in California:

(1)  “Right-to-Work” for all government workers:

This would forbid government unions from getting a government employee fired simply because they didn’t want to join a union. Right-to-work is especially compelling in government organizations, where altruistic individuals who want to become public servants may not wish to financially support the political agenda of their union. Because government unions negotiate over work rules that determine how we manage our public institutions, virtually all union activity is inherently political. Right-to-work in government organizations therefore not only forces unions to be more accountable to their members, but is based on an employee’s constitutional right to free speech.

(2)  “Worker’s Choice” for all government workers:

This law takes right-to-work a step further, and should be implemented in tandem with right-to-work. One objection that unions make to right-to-work laws is that it allows those workers who did not join the union to become “free riders” who enjoy the alleged benefits of union representation but don’t pay any dues. “Worker’s Choice” allows workers under a collective bargaining agreement to opt-out and represent themselves individually in their wage and benefit negotiations with their employer. Something that professionals throughout the private sector do as a matter of course.

(3)  Union Recertification:

This would require government unions to regularly hold a “recertification” election, preferably once every year. The election would require secret ballots and participation by a quorum (usually a majority) of employees in the collective bargaining unit. Most government employees in California started working long after the unions took over. They should be able to decide if they want a union to continue to represent them. Recertification, like right-to-work and worker’s choice, is a practice that would ensure greater accountability by unions, because if they lose the annual election, they would be decertified and could not represent those workers until regaining their approval in an election to be held at least a year later.

(4)  Reduced Scope of Collective Bargaining:

This reform is recommended in order to provide elected officials the latitude to equitably balance the interests of taxpayers and government workers. It gives them the latitude to cope effectively with budget deficits caused by economic downturns that have already affected private sector workers. Limiting negotiations on compensation to current benefits, for example, would mean that elected officials retain the authority to modify pension benefit formulas. Not only budget issues but work rule issues could be restricted under this reform. For example, “last-in-first-out” layoff rules which favor seniority over merit could be scrapped.

(5)  Pension Reform:

The most likely way to implement effective pension reform – which, ironically, is the only way to rescue the defined benefit plan for government workers – is to revise the California constitution via a state ballot initiative. Such a reform, at the least, would give elected officials or voters the right to reduce pension benefit accruals earned by active employees for future work. It would require active employees to pay 50% of their normal contribution, calculated at a rate of return permissable under ERISA statutes, i.e., a truly “risk-free” rate of return. It would impose stricter curbs on spiking and double dipping that would be harder to circumvent in court. And it would provide tools to be implemented to ensure system solvency in a financial state of emergency, such as suspension of COLAs for retirees (retroactively if necessary), retroactive reduction in pension benefit annual accruals for active workers, raising of the pension-eligible retirement age, and a ceiling on benefits.

(6)  “Paycheck Protection”:

This would require unions to obtain permission, preferably annually, before deducting the political portion of their dues from worker paychecks. California’s government workers currently assert their right to not pay the political portion of their dues – notwithstanding the argument that ALL dues paid to a government union are used for essentially political purposes – via a cumbersome “opt-out” process. This reform would change that to an annual “opt-in” process, making it much easier for government workers to avoid having to support the political agenda of their unions.

(7)  “Dues Checkoff”:

Under this reform, government payroll departments would no longer be required (or allowed) to withhold union dues from government employee paychecks and turn that money automatically over to the union. Instead unions would be required to bill and collect dues without relying on payroll withholding, just like other membership organizations. This is particularly justified in the case of government unions, under the assumption that the government should not be acting as a collection agent for a private organization.

(8)  Clarification of “Public Employee”:

This is an interesting reform that can be interpreted in two ways. On one hand, by broadening the description to include government contractors, then in conjunction with other reforms, appropriate regulations restricting inappropriate union activity can be extended, for example, not only to home health care workers, but to construction contractors whose unions negotiate for project labor agreements and prevailing wage agreements. On the other hand, narrowing the description of what constitutes a public employee can counter the aggressive expansion of government unions in states such as California where there are virtually no checks on government union power. Either way, the principle governing the application of this reform would be that unions that operate in the public sector should be subject to more restrictions than those unions that operate in the private sector.

(9)  Transparency in Negotiations:

Lost on most voters is the fact that government unions epitomize the so-called abuses of the elite establishment. Powerful corporate and financial interests make deals with government unions in an Alliance of The Big. More regulations drive out innovative commercial competition at the same time as they expand unionized government. Transparency in negotiations, obviously, means that unions have to disclose their wage and benefit demands for public review. But it means much more than that. Disclosure of their financial and operating reports, their membership dues, their internal leadership election processes. And more than anything, a spotlight on how government unions collude with the most powerful and corrupt among the private sector elites they claim they are protecting us from.

(10)  Ban on Political Activity:

Public employee unions, if they should exist at all, should not be permitted to use their resources to conduct any sort of political lobbying or campaigning. There is an inherent conflict between the agenda of unionized government and the public interest. Government unions, by definition, want to increase their membership and want to increase the pay and benefits of their membership. That causes more government to trump good government. It causes more spending to trump efficient spending. At its root, it means that failure of government programs constitutes success for government unions, because their solution is inevitably to call for more government spending. Political activity by government union should be illegal.

Perhaps the most important point to be made in the context of these ten recommendations is that they are utterly nonpartisan. Unions in the public sector bear little relation to unions in the private sector, for reasons that are well documented: They don’t operate in agencies that have to make a profit, which limits how much private sector unions can ask for from their employers. They elect their own bosses through massive campaign spending, something unheard of in the private sector unions whose management is determined by shareholders. And they run the government, which allows them to make common cause with the most powerful and corrupt among the private sector elites. What part of this is partisan?

Californians of all political persuasions are going to eventually have to face the reality that government unions are the reason our schools are failing students and parents, and the reason we can’t balance our budgets and control our debt. These reforms are all ways to begin to reduce the power of government unions, which will be a giant step towards making California’s state and local governments truly accountable to the interests of all workers – not just government workers.

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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

Dear California Teacher

An email sent to educators just 10 years ago opened a lot of eyes – including mine – about the true nature of the teachers unions.

In 2005, after having taught for 24 years, I was becoming quite agitated. All along I had been subsidizing the teachers unions’ political agenda and thought I had no choice in doing so. I then learned that I could opt out of the political portion of union dues, but the process to do so was designed to discourage such actions. Shortly thereafter I read about Prop. 75, a California ballot initiative, which would have done just what I wanted: make the payment of the political portion of union dues voluntary. Teachers and other public employees would have to give the union permission before it deducted several hundred dollars a year from each paycheck to fund its pet political causes. The unions’ largess, supporting many causes which had nothing to do with teaching or education, went almost entirely in a leftward direction – implementing a single-payer health-care system in California, limiting restraints on the government’s power of eminent domain, etc.

In June, 2005, political consultant Steve Frank recruited me to become part of the Prop. 75 campaign. The so-called “Paycheck Protection” initiative was very popular at that time with both teachers and the general public. But over the summer, deeply threatened that their easy access to workers’ money would be cut off, the unions went into overdrive and spent a huge amount of cash, much of it on misleading ads. The California Teachers Association told teachers that if the prop passed, their pensions would be threatened. The police union told their members that if it was successful, the public would learn where the cops lived. Both allegations were big lies, but they were effective in swaying public opinion.

In October, several weeks before the election, Fontana teacher Lillian Perry and I signed off on an email sent to 90,000 teachers by the Prop. 75 campaign. It began,

Dear California Teacher:

We are also California teachers and are writing to you because we’re concerned about what the leaders of our union, the California Teachers Association (CTA), are doing to our union and with our hard earned dollars that we send to them in Sacramento every month.

Here’s the bottom line: Our current leadership is on the verge of bankrupting the CTA to fund a political agenda that many of us do not support.

Every year, union leaders in Sacramento take more than $100 million dollars from California teachers’ paychecks. This is approximately $300 per teacher per year. Much of this is used to fund a political agenda over which individual teachers have little control. Even worse, this is taken from our paychecks without our permission.

Earlier this year, the CTA leadership decided it still didn’t have enough money to spend on politics, so the (they) decided to take an additional $60 each year from our paychecks for the next three years. This forced assessment gave the union leaders an additional $50 million or more of our money for their political agenda.

Then, the spit really hit the fan. To say that CTA was unhappy would be the understatement of the century. The email made news all over the state, and if nothing else, got everyone talking about the prop. The Daily Kos smeared those of us who had stepped forward. CTA boss Barbara Kerr was indignant, saying, “It’s insulting that it was sent to them at their schools.” The union tried to push the matter – even at one point threatening Perry and me with imprisonment for sending our missive to teachers at work which it claimed was illegal. (The bullying didn’t work; we sent two more emails which CTA couldn’t stop because it didn’t have a legal leg to stand on.)

We did get some sympathetic press, though. Deroy Murdock, a media fellow with the Hoover Institution, wrote “The Union of the Snake” for National Review, in which he detailed the ugly bullying tactics used by the union to combat the initiative. As is oh-so-typical, the unions rarely argued the merits of the prop; they simply threatened us, cursed at us and shouted us down. As Murdock reports, when a National Right to Work Foundation lawyer and several of the prop’s advocates held a press conference in Sacramento, some of SEIU’s finest showed up and yelled “Shame on you!!” over and over and over again as the proponents tried to make their case. Murdock also related the tale of Sandra Crandall – a Teacher-of-the-Year – who then was in her 36th year as a Kindergarten teacher in Fountain Valley. In September, Crandall told the Los Angeles Times, “This is a freedom-of-choice issue. The issue is so simple, my Kindergarten children understand it. Ask permission. Ask permission on how to use my hard-earned money.”

Crandall’s simple, fair-minded statement engendered a less-than-charming response from “Four Pro-Union teachers who think you and the governor and the Republican party (sic) stink.” A few highlights:

You are a disgrace in supporting such a measure … You not only deserve to be shunned by your colleagues, you deserve to be bitch slapped in public by all the teachers you work with for demonstrating such a high level of right wing drivel and stupidity. Do us all a favor, shut your mouth and stop providing ammunition to the enemy.

Ah yes, nothing like tolerance and civil discourse!

As Election Day neared, I was mildly optimistic that we’d win. Especially so, after I, along with Lillian Perry, former Mayor Richard Riordan and Deputy Sheriff Lon Jacobs, appeared before the Los Angeles Times editorial board to pitch the initiative. We apparently convinced them of its merits, because on October 16th, much to my delight, the Times officially endorsed Prop. 75.

In the end though, we couldn’t beat the powerful union machine. Fueled by CTA’s $12 million ad buys (paid for, of course, with dues money teachers were forced to fork over), the anti-75 forces outspent us almost 10 to 1 – $54.1 million to $5.8 million and the measure lost by 53.5 to 46.5 percent. Not surprisingly all the big money came from the unions, including a $3.3 million donation from the California Democratic Party – a bought-and-paid-for wing of CTA.

Needless to say, I was furious with the outcome. But it motivated me in 2006 to co-found the California Teachers Empowerment Network, whose mission is to give teachers unbiased information, and combat union spin and outright lies. In 2010, I worked on a similar prop – The Citizens Power Initiative – which unfortunately never made it onto the ballot. And in 2012 I stumped for Prop. 32, yet another initiative promoting worker freedom. It too failed at the polls.

Now – exactly ten years after the rise and fall of Prop. 75 – there are two lawsuits which could accomplish even more than what the failed initiative had tried to achieve. The Friedrichs v CTA case, due to be heard by SCOTUS in 2016, would make paying any dues to a union optional for all public employees nationwide. If Bain v. CTA flies, teachers will be able to opt out of the political portion of their dues without being forced to resign from the union.

Both cases promote teacher freedom and choice at the expense of union bullying and hegemony. It’s about time teachers and other public employees had both.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Checking Out of the Hotel California…Teachers Association

A new document shows that CTA is resigned to the fact that membership in its union will ultimately become voluntary.

Courtesy of Mike Antonucci, we get to peek behind the curtain at an internal California Teachers Association document which has been “declassified.” “Not if, but when: Living in a world without Fair Share…” is a 23-page pdf in which the largest state teachers union in the country envisions the future.

The communiqué  starts off with basic demographic data, then launches into a history of “fair share” – the union’s right to collect dues from every public school teacher in the state whether or not they join the union. In other words, “fair share” is really “forced share.”

Next there is a history of the initiatives that have tried to curtail the unbridled power of CTA including Prop. 75, in which I was an active participant. This 2005 “paycheck protection” initiative would have required public employee union members’ consent to use part of their dues for political contributions. The default position was – and unfortunately still is – that members must pay and have to jump through hoops not to. CTA tells us that proponent spending on the initiative was $5.8 million, while the prop’s opponents spent more than $44 million, with CTA alone providing over $32 million to defeat it. Given that disparity (and the unions’ outright lies about the issue), it’s not hard to see why the measure went down on Election Day.

The CTA document then goes into past and future legal challenges – Harris v Quinn, Friedrichs v CTA et al. Referring to them as attacks, they posit that these cases will lead to the demise of “fair share.”

Resigned to its worst nightmare – teacher freedom – the union is gearing up for what is standard procedure for most successful businesses and interest groups. If teachers think the union has something beneficial to offer, they can join and pay up. If they don’t see any value in belonging the union, they can just say no and not be forced to pay any dues whatsoever. In this vein, the missive has some suggested sales pitches:

CTA Builds the Infrastructure

Member Benefits research with young, prospective members to learn what might incent (sic) them to want to join the Association voluntarily.  

•Assessing their level of interest in terms of present member benefits offerings.

•How the program might be enhanced to reflect their interests.

•Finding messages that resonate with this demographic, and:

•How to package what Association membership offers in a way that appeals to them.

 Note the language: incent(ivize), voluntarily, reflect their interests, messages that resonate, a way that appeals to them. These are typical terms that a business might use to sell their product or service, which is of course very different from the old CTA forced-dues model, which could have been lifted straight out of The Muggers Guide to Fame and Fortune

There’s more about how CTA plans to adapt, and I would urge you to read the entire 23-page presentation; it is most definitely a stunning document.

Former union leader Doug Tuthill seems right at home with the direction that CTA is going.

The two most effective unions in the United States are the National Rifle Association and the AARP. They’re not industrial unions, but they are unions, and they are far more effective politically and financially than today’s teachers unions. Teachers should adopt this model.

Unlike today’s teachers unions, the NRA and AARP do not require their members to be part of a centralized bureaucracy. Their members are united by common values and interests, not by location. An NRA-AARP type teachers union would be able to advocate for teachers working in a variety of settings, including museums, libraries, district schools, virtual schools, art galleries, charter schools, homeschools, tutoring businesses, private schools, YWCAs, and Boys and Girls Clubs. The work setting would be irrelevant, just as where NRA and AARP members work — or where American Bar Association lawyers and American Medical Association doctors work — is irrelevant. (The ABA and AMA are also non-industrial unions.)

Even a current union leader has seen the light. Via National Right to Work Committee’s Stan Greer, we learn that veteran union organizer Gary Casteel, who was recently promoted to secretary-treasurer of the United Auto Workers, favors right-to-work laws:

[T]here’s a school of thought that says it’s not such a great thing to have everyone pay dues whether they want to or not….

This is something I’ve never understood, that people think right to work hurts unions. To me, it helps them. You don’t have to belong if you don’t want to. So if I go to an organizing drive, I can tell these workers, ‘If you don’t like this arrangement, you don’t have to belong.’ Versus, ‘If we get 50 percent of you, then all of you have to belong, whether you like to or not.’ I don’t even like the way that sounds.  Because [Right to Work is] a voluntary system, if you don’t think the system’s earning its keep, then you don’t have to pay.

So it would seem that during National Employee Freedom Week which runs through this Saturday, there is cause for optimism. A recent poll conducted by Google Consumer Surveys found that nearly 29 percent of union members nationwide responded that they were interested in leaving their union if given the opportunity. A similar poll found that nearly 83 percent of the American public believes that union members should have the right to choose.

As such, maybe one day soon we will see that, unlike the Hotel California, union members can check out and leave their union behind.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

Why the Democratic Party Cannot Embrace Public Sector Union Reform

“Public employees have a private interest in taking more and more of the taxpayer-generated revenue for themselves. In other words, public employees have a private interest in diverting public funds from public services to their wages and pensions. In this sense, the increasing numbers of public employees and their increasing wages and benefits threaten to hollow out public services in our country.”
–  Roger Berkowitz, Executive Director, Hannah Arendt Center

The above quote explains quite well the intrinsic conflict of interests that accrues to public sector unions. This conflict of interest is the primary distinction between public sector unions and private sector unions. It is the reason that private sector unions can muster strong arguments for their continued relevance in society, whereas the very legitimacy of public sector unions is questionable. And lest anyone suggest that calls for reform – if not abolition – of public sector unions emanates solely from the “extreme right wing,” consider the provenance of the above quote, and go away. The highly regarded, intellectually elite Hannah Arendt Center boasts perhaps the most impeccable nonpartisan, anti-ideological credentials of any comparable institution in the world.

The reason Democrats don’t support public sector union reform is quite obvious. There is no special interest in America that donates more money to the Democratic party than public sector unions. The data in the table below makes this quite clear. If you go to the source of this data OpenSecrets.org, you will see that the vast majority of the $535 million contributed to Democrats between 2000 and 2010 came from public sector unions, whose membership in absolute numbers now exceeds that of private sector unions. Needless to say, in California, where public sector union spending on state and local campaigns and lobbying exceeds $500 million per two-year cycle, the same percentages apply.

Democrats are reluctant to recognize the conflict of interests that makes the very existence of public sector unions a threat to our democracy, our economy, and our civil rights, because the Democratic party is financially dependent on public sector unions. It is significant that on the above table, which covers federal elections and lobbying efforts, corporate contributions are nearly balanced between Democrats and Republicans. If union spending provided a counterweight to corporate spending, as they claim, then one could make a case against reform. But “union spending” is predominantly “public sector union spending,” and their primary agenda has nothing to do with protecting the rights of private sector workers. Their agenda has to to with exempting public sector workers from the economic challenges facing ordinary American workers who have to compete – along with corporations – in the global economy. And corporations, facing a monolithic, self-interested, unionized government, play ball. Crony capitalists and the trading departments of Wall Street brokerages – i.e., the most parasitic sectors of the free market economy – profit from unionized government.

Breaking the power of public sector unions, if not eliminating them altogether, is a prerequisite, ironically, to reforming the financial sector and restoring a competitive corporate environment. It is also a prerequisite to reforming taxpayer-funded, government administered benefits and entitlements so that all American workers earn them according to the same set of formulas and incentives – regardless of whether or not they work for the government or in the private sector.

Most of the public sector union reform strategies that have been attempted – successfully or not – have been oriented towards facilitating “opt-out” behavior for government workers. Right-to-work laws allow employees of unionized government agencies to refuse to pay union dues. Most states, even California, permit employees of unionized government agencies to opt-out of paying the political portion of their dues. But these reforms do nothing to stop the overwhelming portion of government union money flowing to Democrats, a partisan strategy on the part of public sector union leadership that is entirely unrepresentative of their membership.

Taking this concept to its logical extreme makes the point clear:  Using very rough numbers, the party identification among America’s government workers nearly mirrors that of the private sector workers, splitting about one-third each between Democrats, Republicans, and Independents (ref. Gallup 2011). A spectacularly successful paycheck protection law would, arguably, result in government political contributions diminishing by one-third – possibly more depending on the sentiments of independents. That is, instead of diverting, for example, $100 million dollars from the taxpayer funded government payroll into the coffers of the Democratic party, only $66 million would go there. The Republicans would still get nothing, and the corrupt essence of a forcibly politicized government workforce would remain intact.

Other than abolition, speculating over what alternative public sector union reform strategy might be more effective than “paycheck protection” is dangerous. It might be possible to force, through litigation, allocation of government union political contributions to parties according to the party registration of the union memberships. Once per year, unionized government workers would fill out a form where they would disclose, anonymously, their party registration. A 3rd party agency, perhaps a major public accounting firm, would collect these ballots, collect the political contributions, and allocate the money to the respective parties based on the voting of the members. This is dangerous territory, however, because it implies public sector unions should exist. And in a healthy democracy, they should not, because their interests are innately opposed to the public interest.

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