Anyone involved in state or local politics in California soon realizes that government unions are the most powerful special interest in the state. From time to time, as the ride-share behemoths proved in spectacular fashion last November with Proposition 22, corporations will defy the unions on very specific issues. But by and large California’s corporations have entered into a profitable symbiosis with government unions.
Small wonder. California’s state and local government unions collect and spend nearly one billion dollars per year, mostly in the form of dues from workers in the state and local government bureaucracies. The teachers’ unions alone, when you include local chapters and bargaining units representing education service workers, have nearly a half-billion dollars to work with. Every year.
There is not one member of California’s state legislature who is not likely to acknowledge, off the record, that government unions in California exercise almost absolute political power. But they have one Achilles heel, California’s initiative process.
Every two years – it used to be every state election including primaries and special elections, but in 2011 the unions got rid of that privilege – California’s voters have the right to directly approve or reject new laws and new constitutional amendments that can supersede legislation passed by the union-controlled state legislature. Not only can laws and constitutional amendments approved via a state ballot initiative overturn existing law, but the state legislature cannot pass contrary legislation to nullify these initiatives. They can only be nullified by a new, contrary initiative being put before voters in a subsequent election cycle.
Putting an initiative on the ballot is no small task. For example, a constitutional amendment, capable of implementing fundamental political changes in California, will not qualify for the state ballot in November 2022 unless proponents gather not quite 1.0 million signatures from registered voters. To ensure that many signed petitions withstand the validation process, since inevitably there are duplicates and ineligible signatures, at least 1.3 million signed petitions have to be gathered. The campaign necessary to collect this many signed petitions can cost proponents anywhere between five and ten million dollars.
This isn’t a lot of money for government unions to spend. It also isn’t a lot of money for a consortium of large corporations to spend. That is evident from the quantity of initiatives that qualify for the state ballot every two years. But it is an absolute pile of money for any group that is willing to defy these unions to spend. It is a nearly prohibitive amount of money, which is why initiatives that pose an existential threat to government unions rarely make it onto the state ballot.
In the first two decades of this century, only a two major threats to government union power via ballot initiatives come to mind. In 2012, Prop. 32 would have banned unions and corporations from contributing payroll-deducted funds to state and local candidates. It would also have banned government contractors from contributing to candidates that may award government contracts. Unions fought this hard, spending $70 million in opposition, vs. $20 million mustered by the proponents. In 2005, Governor Schwarzenegger – who up to that time had been an outspoken critic of government unions – put four initiatives on the state ballot. All of these initiatives challenged union power, and the unions fought back hard, spending well over $200 million to defeat them all, versus $50 million raised by the proponents.
Decouple Qualification Effort from Campaign for Passage
The historical record of ballot initiatives that challenged government unions in California has spawned a conventional wisdom that goes something like this: “The unions are going to grossly outspend us, so we can’t have any hope of victory unless we carefully pick a perfect, winnable initiative, preferably incremental in nature that will overwhelmingly appeal to voters. So let’s save our money and go at the unions once every ten or twenty years, because maybe then we can win a little something. If we try anything bolder than that, nobody will ever donate to conservative causes again in California.”
This logic, while timid, is safe and sound. But there is another way to look at these numbers. And it goes like this: “Unions may have $2.0 billion per year to spend, but they can’t use all of that for politics, and while what they do spend on politics is still insanely abundant, it isn’t limitless. If we know that unions are going to spend $50 million or more to be sure they defeat a ballot initiative that they consider an existential threat, then let’s make sure we have at least one, if not a half-dozen, existential threats qualified for the ballot, every two years from now until hell freezes over.”
Imagine the impact of this strategy. Instead of spending $5 million to qualify an initiative for the ballot and $50 million to try to win passage, drop that campaign for passage to $45 million, and use the $5 million you save to make sure you have another initiative on the ballot in two years.
This strategy can be examined from a lot of angles. Why even worry about the campaign for passage of an initiative? Why not form a committee focused on one thing only; qualifying initiatives for the state ballot every two years, as many as possible, where every one of them is an existential threat to the government unions?
It’s a target rich environment. Education reform, pension reform, work rule reform, collective bargaining reform. Take away their right to strike – they’re public employees that enjoy civil service protection. Or attack the leftist issues that government unions support in lockstep with corrupt corporations, i.e., roll back extreme environmentalist laws that have tied up in knots any attempts to develop land, energy and water in California. No wonder the state is unaffordable. Get rid of union make-work projects such as high-speed rail and direct the money into infrastructure that will actually benefit Californians. Require annual 3rd party audits of government agencies. Reform the government contracting processes.
There’s no end to what sorts of policy initiatives could be introduced to voters that would draw the fire of government unions and deplete their treasuries. Dozens of policy areas, hundreds of detailed proposals, and they could be put forward again and again. How many times can these unions spend $50 million or $100 million to defeat these existential threats?
This is a war of attrition that underfunded insurgent reformers in California can win. The asymmetry between the cost of qualifying a state ballot initiative and the cost to the unions to defeat it will eventually drain them. For every dollar that’s spent by the insurgents, the unions will have to spend five to ten dollars. The more bold and disruptive the initiative is, the more the unions will spend to be certain it fails. And all those hundreds of millions they’ll spend is money they can no longer spend in Georgia, Wisconsin, or anywhere else outside California. It’s also money they’ll be unable to spend to control battleground school boards and city councils across the state.
The spinoffs of this strategy go beyond just breaking these unions financially and reducing their ability to control local and state elections. As outspoken opponents of government unions finally become a significant percentage of local elected officials, because they weren’t spent into the ground by their union supported opponents, a critical mass of young and rising reform-minded politicians emerge in California. Suddenly reformers have experienced candidates available to run for state assembly and state senate.
There’s more. Over time, the power of incumbency, the level campaigning playing field, and a host of enlightened new policies will enable the electorate to understand the value of political reform. Better schools. Better neighborhoods. A lower cost-of-living. Lower crime. Lower taxes and fees. An end to harassment of small businesses. Fewer regulations. More government accountability.
Eventually, to come full circle, unions will be so exhausted fighting initiatives that are mortal threats to their existence that voters will start to approve them, because the unions no longer have the capacity to out-spend the proponents in the general campaign.
Government unions are the root cause of bloated, inefficient, even hostile government in California. Making them fight for their existence via ballot initiatives is a cost-effective way to eventually break their power.
This article originally appeared on the website of the California Globe.
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Edward Ring is a contributing editor for the California Policy Center.