The Public Employee Union Chokehold on California

The Public Employee Union Chokehold on California

I created a stir last year when I — the former Democratic Senate majority leader — endorsed Proposition 32, the ballot initiative that would have reigned in special interests, including enabling union members to bypass their own union executive boards and make their own choices as to how to direct their own union dues for political causes. After all, I’m a longtime liberal Democrat who supports the right to organize and I still pay union dues. But I served 12 years in the Legislature, chairing two key committees — Public Safety and Education. I had a front-row seat on how the wheels of government are greased to function on behalf of politically connected interests.

Sacramento is where the action takes place to protect powerful interests. On any given day, busloads of children invade the Capitol to see their government in action. They roam audacious hallways, no tour guide giving them the kind of view to which I was privy. That view is largely inaccessible to the public; like the story of Oz, great wizards behind velvet curtains disproportionately call the shots. It’s often wondered what walls would say if they could talk. I’ve been in almost every room of the Capitol, including rooms “across the street” from the dome where, to avoid the appearance of corruption, dominant political forces set up shop to keep tabs on their interests.


Those are the real halls of power. In the great state where Hollywood lives, legislators bang a gavel in a Capitol committee room to “debate” laws. “Showtime” has begun; usually the dice have already been rolled.

Over time, I chose not to just be a cog in the ever-churning wheel of special interests and status quo — from both the left and the right. I saw a political system that was all too willing to ignore the needs of ordinary citizens, particularly the poor and minority kids I represented in East Los Angeles. I began to tilt at windmills.

It’s hard to condense what I witnessed into the space available for this essay, but within those constraints, I present to you a glimpse into some of those powers behind the curtains. Undoubtedly, I hold special interests from both big corporations and big unions responsible. But as a Democrat, I more so felt the influence of public-sector unions on my party. I hope to illustrate how powerful special-interest public-sector unions took control of government and what it will take for Californians to wrestle back control.

There is no aspect of state government operations or public policy that is untouched by the power of public-sector unions and their allies in Sacramento. The power is omnipresent: from enacting legislation to writing a state budget to confirming state board and commission appointees, labor’s presence is omnipresent. It also includes ghostwriting eleventh-hour legislative changes to push ballot-qualified citizen initiatives to a more obscure ballot position so that their backed initiatives will be seen by voters first. Their influence extends beyond the Legislature, and includes clout with how the state’s legal counsel writes ballot summaries and titles.

Money flows to those who control the levers of power, and in California that means Democrats who have long been allied with, and funded by, public-sector unions. One does not make the decision to “cross” powerful interests lightly, for recrimination is swift. Usually done behind closed doors, one threat was actually televised when, during a budget hearing, a representative of the Service Employees International Union — one of California’s largest public-employee unions — brazenly told legislators “we helped to get you into office, and we got a good memory. Come November, if you don’t back our program, we’ll get you out of office.” Remarkably, not one legislator contested the threat delivered in “the people’s house.”

The most influential public-sector union is the California Teachers Association, which has mastered the politics of how to elect the very politicians who subsequently do their bidding. With approximately 325,000 members — each paying some $1,000 a year in dues — it commands the most powerful war chest in California, raising over $300 million annually to finance its operations. From 2000-2010, CTA spent over $210 million on political campaigning — more than any other donor in the state, outspending the pharmaceutical, oil and tobacco industries combined.

Its political war chest is legendary, allowing it to dominate elections, including school-board races in which turnout is often less than 10 percent. Political consultants fear crossing them because of the potential to be “blacklisted” in the future. Almost half the California budget funds education, thanks to Proposition 98, a 1988 initiative crafted by CTA. Democratic legislators fear interfering with it even though few understand how the formula functions.

Former Senate President Don Perata, D-Oakland, was one of the few to challenge it, comparing it to a “runaway escalator” in need of reform. In retribution, CTA ran ads against him. They were not interested in “taking him out”; rather, the message was more akin to sending dead fish to fellow Caucus members so they would have to choose loyalty: their own president or CTA. In a subsequent interview, Sen. Perata referenced CTA’s arrogant belief that it was the “fourth coequal branch of government.”

Former CTA staffers are ensconced in legislative leadership offices. Legislation benefiting their membership flies through the Capitol. Indeed, class-size reduction was sold to voters as “benefiting kids.” In fact, its main effect was growing the numbers of dues-paying members rather than improving the academic skills of, particularly, poor and minority children. California’s teachers are among the highest-paid in the nation; yet there is little accountability for student achievement or teacher performance. Tenure and seniority are protected. Laws make it almost impossible to fire teachers for incompetence or misconduct. Charter schools — mostly nonunion — are vilified. Any hint of privatization, including creating Special Opportunity Scholarships for kids locked in failing schools, is off the table.


Ironically, Latinos and African-Americans — the very base of the Democratic Party — are the ones who find themselves in chronically underperforming schools. Ironically, there is a growing divide with increasing numbers of rank-and-file teachers embracing long-needed education reforms. But their executive boards control the dues and dole them out to those who bend to their wishes. Sadly, Democratic legislators too easily kowtow to the money that flows from the teachers union. Frustrated with the Legislature’s inaction, parents increasingly are turning to the courts for relief in a new era of an education civil rights movement.

Like the spoils of a ravaged post-World War II Europe, policy issues are allocated to lead agents. Unsurprisingly, education legislation is largely ceded to CTA officials, who are joined in legislative committees by “the brotherhood of labor” as a show of force. I once authored a bill to simply identify the 10 lowest-performing schools in California to spur turnaround efforts. The line of opposition rallied by CTA included the usual suspects, but even I had to shake my head in disbelief when the lifeguards union joined CTA in opposing reform. It died.

It wasn’t until I was willing to cross party lines and work with a coalition of Republicans, Democrats and an Independent that I was able to enact new rights for parent empowerment in California. Until legislators are willing to put student interests over party interests, we will continue to fund failing schools.

But they are not alone. Legislators strive to stay in good favor with public-safety unions — cops, firefighters and Highway Patrol officers, who hold the gold standard contract for public-safety workers. Benefits are lucrative, typically enabling retirement at age 50 with 90 percent of their final year’s pay guaranteed, including cost-of-living adjustments until death. But these benefits are costly, as we’ve seen in Stockton, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, and Vallejo. Punishment is harsh on those legislators willing to challenge public-safety officers. Voters are starting to rescind these at the ballot box — only to find their own elections being challenged in court.


Despite the stereotyping about California’s “left-wing ideology,” it is a law-and-order state when it comes to public safety. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) membership expanded sharply as California built 22 new prisons over 25 years, and its members are among the nation’s highest paid. They have become a powerful interest, spearheading a scaring of the public into a “tough on crime” mentality. Legislators, fearful of crossing the prison guards, regularly kill bills not endorsed by them. Today, our state prison system remains under federal control. Legislators who don’t support enhanced contracts or suggest prison privatization become targeted. But the payoff is grand for politicians like Gov. Gray Davis, who shortly after taking office negotiated a 34 percent pay hike over five years for CCPOA members. His re-election coffers were soon generously filled.

The list continues. The California Nurses Association, rather heartlessly, worked furiously to prohibit allowing school employees to volunteer to be trained in how to administer medication for epileptic and diabetic children in the event of an emergency. The reason: The union that would lose dues-paying members is now in court suing over the issue.

Legislation continues to be rushed through, often at the last minute, to benefit the hands that feed. Currently, the Senate president himself is carrying a bill for the powerful construction unions to overturn the rights of voters in charter cities.

So how do Californians wrestle back control?

It won’t be easy. However, Californians are increasingly realizing the dysfunctional grip special interests have on their lives. Money is the mother’s milk of politics. Yet Californians must enact restrictions on the influence of that money. Recent Supreme Court rulings that money is free speech exacerbate the complications, but it can be done.


Some unions have helped advance agendas that defend quality of life and rights for all Californians. But too many have played a shameful, oversized role in abandoning the needs, hopes and aspirations of a demographically changing California. The answer is not to ban unions but to empower members to gain freedom in choosing how their own political dues are spent. Presently, union members are disdainfully treated as automatic debit cards by their own executive boards — fearful that increased democratization within the ranks will topple them. Indeed, independent, democratic unionism has even helped topple unsavory governments. Until members’ freedoms are enacted, wrestling back control will be all but impossible.

California’s dysfunction is also our own fault. Over 75 percent of voters failed to vote in the last Los Angeles mayoral election. California will never transform itself if citizens refuse to participate. Legislators need to be willing to cross party lines — including risking political suicide — if we are to break the grip, and an informed electorate needs to support them when they do. Open primaries are a start, but we need to ensure they don’t just solidify the power of parties.

Power never concedes power without a fight. The choice is ours. Sadly, we’ve let control be wrested away from us — both by corporations and public-sector unions that seem as though they are too big to fail. They are not.

Romero, a Los Angeles resident, served in the California Legislature from 1998 to 2008, the last seven years as Senate majority leader. This article originally appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune and is republished here with permission.

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