Why We Fight Government Unions
The California Policy Center, established in 2013, exists to expose and undermine the destructive power of government unions. Most Californians still don’t understand the threat these unions represent to the integrity of our democracy, the agenda of our politicians, and the solvency of our public institutions.
Government unions, sometimes also referred to as public sector unions, have very little in common with unions that represent employees in the private sector. While there is debate over what sorts of regulations should govern private sector unions, there is general agreement that they have played a vital role in protecting the rights of workers. Government unions are completely different.
Unlike private sector unions, government unions do not have to be reasonable when they negotiate pay, benefits, and work rules. In the private sector, if a union demands too much, the company can become unprofitable and go out of business. But government unions operate in the public sector, where politicians can simply increase taxes and cut services in order to pay whatever the unions demand.
Also unlike private sector unions, government unions do not negotiate with an independent management team. In the public sector, government unions often are the main contributors to political campaigns. Government unions “negotiate” with politicians they helped elect and whom they can easily target and defeat when they run for reelection. In California alone, government unions collect and spend nearly one billion dollars per year in dues, and of that, they use hundreds of millions, per year, to fund political campaigns.
Finally, government unions operate the machinery of government. It’s easy to overlook the significance of this obvious fact. But owners of small businesses who must comply with regulations, manage inspections, pay fees, and apply for permits, all to government agencies, cannot afford to be on record as contributing to candidates and causes these government unions oppose.
The negative consequences of government union control over the vast majority of California’s local and state elected officials cannot be overstated. Major corporations and wealthy individuals, by and large, have acquiesced to the government union agenda, greatly narrowing the scope of political debate and limiting the options offered voters.
One predictable and very serious result of government union influence in California’s politics is out-of-control rates of pay and benefits for public employees. For example, the average public sector retiree in California now collects a pension of $70,000 per year for 30 years of fulltime work. The pension systems that collect and invest money to fund these generous pensions are all facing bankruptcy, and demanding tens of billions of additional payments from taxpayers to stay solvent.
Another major negative consequence of unionized government in California is their almost universal partisan bias towards progressive policies. This finds expression in the curricular agenda pushed into the public schools by the teachers’ union. This union relentlessly lobbies for classroom material that prioritizes progressive topics such as ethnic studies and gender studies, along with coursework that disparages American history, the American founding, and free market principles.
Government unions also undermine accountability for public employees. This is seen across all agencies. Unionized public school teachers are granted tenure after less than two years of classroom observation. In layoffs, good teachers must be let go in deference to teachers with seniority. Incompetent or negligent teachers are almost impossible to fire. In every unionized public agency, from public schools to police departments, government unions protect the bad apples, causing needless public anger and damaging their credibility.
It wasn’t always this way. Government unions are a relatively recent phenomenon. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt, a friend of labor, had this to say about government unions back in 1937:
“All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”
Not quite 20 years later, in 1955, none other than George Meany, founder and long-time president of the AFL-CIO, flatly stated that it was “impossible to bargain collectively with the government,” and that the AFL-CIO did not intend to reach out to workers in that sector.
But where common sense and propriety inhibited some of the most illustrious supporters of organized labor from unionizing the public sector during the first half of the 20th century, circumstances changed during the century’s latter half. Corruption, opportunism, and a chance to achieve decisive power for the Democratic Party gave rise to new laws that enabled unionized government.
The modern era of public sector unionism began in the late 1950s. Starting in Wisconsin in 1958, state and local employees gradually were permitted to organize. Today, there are only four states that explicitly prohibit collective bargaining by public employees.
The vision of the California Policy Center is a California where public sector unions are illegal. Public employees have all the same rights that protect private sector workers. As members of the civil service, they also have protections against arbitrary firing by incoming elected officials. They don’t need unions.
In the short run, the mission of the California Policy Center is to make California’s voters aware of the self-interested power of government unions. If you see a politician endorsed by a government union, vote for their opponent. If you see an initiative or ballot measure endorsed by a government union, vote no.