The War for the Soul of the Democratic Party

While attention focuses on the battle in Wisconsin between a Republican Governor and public employee unions who overwhelmingly support Democrats, it is in California where the future role of public sector unions in politics is being most severely tested. Because in California, Democrats exercise nearly absolute control over the state’s political agenda, and as a result, Democrats are forced to confront the unsustainable and counterproductive public sector union agenda all by themselves.

An interesting article in the March 2011 issue of Reason Magazine by Tim Cavanaugh, entitled “Farewell, My Lovely – How public pensions killed progressive California,” opens with a statement that clearly expresses the political reality in California today, “In November, bucking the national trend, Democrats in California won not just the governorship but 51 Assembly seats to Republicans’ 29, 24 state Senate seats to Republicans’ 14, and every statewide office. With the passage of a referendum lowering the number of legislative votes required to approve a state budget (from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority), California is that rarest of land masses for the 2011 Democratic Party: conquered territory.”

Cavanaugh goes on to describe the slow realization by California’s Democratic lawmakers that their visions for California’s future “are being derailed by a labor movement nobody can harness.” Referring to California’s unsustainable pension benefits package granted unionized state and local government employees, Cavanaugh observes “…the most aggressive lobbying for pension reform is coming not from fiscal conservatives but from progressives, who see the logarithmic cascade of pension liability as a threat to public parks, environmental programs, and rail transit.”

The looming schism between progressive Democrats and union Democrats in California affects all government programs, but the insolvency of public employee pension benefits and the failing system of public education are two of the most visible. In San Francisco, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, a Democrat, sponsored a pension reform bill in November 2010 that would have imposed very modest increases to pension contributions by city workers. He was bitterly opposed by public employee unions, and the measure was defeated. Quoting from Cavanaugh’s article, here are some of the people who backed Adachi on the bill:

“Adachi’s allies on Prop. B included Willie Brown, a Democrat who was mayor of San Francisco from 1996 to 2004 and speaker of the California State Assembly from 1981 to 1995, and the Green Party’s Matt Gonzalez, former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and Ralph Nader’s 2008 vice presidential candidate.”

As noted in SF Weekly on Feb. 16th, “Jeff Adachi Already Crafting ‘New Prop. B’,” Adachi is going to try again. And this time the spotlight will shine even brighter on a phenomenon that has started in California and will sweep across the blue states of America – Democrats vs. Democrats fighting for the agenda of their party.

Turning to California’s troubled system of public education, a Sacramento Bee story published today entitled “Democratic schism opens on fixing schools,” by Laurel Rosenhall offers an impressive list of Democrats who have decided a primary obstacle to improving public education is the teacher’s union. Here are excerpts from Rosenhall’s report:

“Gloria Romero, the former [Democratic] state senator from Los Angeles who lost her bid this year to become the state superintendent of schools, is heading the new California chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, a PAC that operates in 10 states… ‘It’s a donkey in the room,’ Romero said. ‘It’s Democrats who have been tightly aligned with education’s special interests year after year, decade after decade, and we haven’t progressed. So we have to examine our conscience, our party, and really forge a new path forward.’ ”

“In a speech earlier this month, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat who got his start as a union organizer, blasted the L.A. teachers union for blocking changes in the schools.”

“Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., [Democratic] schools chancellor who fought the teachers union there over tenure and merit pay, is launching a national advocacy group to back politicians who can’t get union support because of their views on education.”

” ‘It’s a people’s movement, in a way, from groups like NAACP saying ‘enough is enough,’ ‘ said Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, which supported Romero’s bills. Taking a position against the unions was a switch for Huffman, a Democratic Party activist who worked for the CTA for 12 years and describes herself as a strong believer in labor rights. ‘I’m not trying to destroy the union,’ Huffman said. ‘But sometimes you have to make a choice in life and right now, the education of our young people is more important than protecting the union.’ ”

There are two types of Democrats – union democrats, who want to retain over-market pay and inefficient practices for their powerful union constituencies, and government services Democrats, who want infrastructure projects and social programs. In California, where these Democrats wield monopoly control over the political process, the hard reality is that they will have to choose between the union agenda vs. the government services agenda. This hard reality will expose the agenda of the unions more explicitly than events in Wisconsin ever will, because in California there is no Republican opposition to scapegoat in order to hide the true issues of solvency and sustainability.

In California, Democrats of conscience, loyal to their ideal of government as an investor in infrastructure and provider of services, are rejecting major elements of the union agenda, and as a party, they will have to weather the ensuing turmoil and impoverishment. This will force realistic assessments of what is politically and financially feasible by Democrats, transforming their party. This process has already begun in the Golden State.

1 reply
  1. Avatar
    Tough Love says:

    Well Democrats, here’s something for you to ponder:

    Let’s cut to the chase …….

    Private sector employers typically contribute 3%-8% of an employee’s cash pay towards retirement, yet the total cost (expressed as a level annual % of cash pay throughout one’s career) of Public Sector Defined Benefit pensions (for a 30-year employee retiring at age 55) ranges from 29% to 58% depending on the richness of the benefit formula (with safety workers generally at the highest end).

    More specifically, for the noted formulas, the level annual %s of cash pay are as follows:
    2% per year of service w/o COLA – 29%
    2% per year of service with COLA – 39%
    3% per year of service w/o COLA – 44%
    3% per year of service with COLA – 58%

    Even after deducting the typical employee contribution of about 5% of pay, that still leaves the employer (meaning TAXPAYERS) contributing 24% to 53% of pay. The middle of these %s is 38.5% vs 5.5% (the middle of the range of what Private Sector employers contribute) or SEVEN (yes SEVEN) times greater.

    This is completely absurd, and the very modest “tweaking” at the edges by practically begging employees for a few more percent of pay contributions will NOT even begin solve the HUGE financial problem.

    TOTAL COMPENSATION (Cash Pay plus Pensions plus Benefits) should be comparable in the Public and Private Sectors for similar jobs, and with Cash Pay in the Public Sector now AT LEAST equal to (if not greater) than that in the Private Sector, there is ZERO justification for greater Public Sector Pensions and Benefits .

    Not for PAST service, but for FUTURE service, Public Sector pension accruals must immediately be brought FULLY down to the level of their Private Sector counterparts. Due to the huge reduction needed, the ONLY way to do this is to freeze the current defined benefit plans for CURRENT (yes CURRENT) workers, and switch everyone into a 401K-style Defined Contribution Plan with an employer contribution in the same 3%-8% range granted Private Sector workers.

    Additionally, since Private Sector retirees rarely get any retiree healthcare subsidy before eligibility for Medicare at age 65, similar restrictions should apply to Public Sector retirees.

    It’s TAXPAYERS’ money and Civil Servants are NOT more worthy of bigger pensions and better benefits.

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