Collective bargaining for public employees is a noble idea. Unfortunately, as it has been implemented it is falls far short of nobility. The November ballot has a proposition which could bring more balance into the relationships between the public and its employees. A variation of this type of measure - which prohibits unions (and now corporations) from collecting mandatory political contributions has been on the ballot and failed - but this time the calculus may be different.
California first implemented full collective bargaining in the 1970s but when the state also implemented agency shop - which requires people who work in a particular office to be represented by a union that has been voted in - things began to mutate. All of a sudden the public employee unions were awash in political cash.
Last year, according to the LA Times the two top lobbyist employers (those who spent the most money in the process) were the California Teacher's Association and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU - the so-called Purple Shirts).
The resulting tradeoff has been devastating. In collective bargaining in the private sector, unions do indeed have an opportunity to buy stock in the companies they are representing. But unlike the private sector, public employee unions, through their political contributions, actually get to pick the equivalent of the management team or the board of directors that they will be negotiating with. Gloria Romero, a former Democrat State Senator said this "As someone who has been on the political frontlines in Sacramento, I've seen first hand how special interests control the political process. Through their vast resources, special interests are able to hold lawmakers hostage to their agenda. This isn’t a partisan or ideological issue – all Californians deserve elected officials who will work for them, rather than special interests. By tackling the flow of money, Prop 32 would take a serious step in that direction.” In many local school and community college district races the candidates endorsed (and funded) by the CTA are most often the winners. Thus, the unions get to pick who they will negotiate with.
If something similar has gone down a couple of times before, why would this measure have a better chance? (Note in this race spending on the no side is likely to run, in part from all those involuntary contributions, at a six to one rate against the proposition.) There are at least three reasons.
First, public employee pensions. The ability of the public employee unions to get inside deals on issues like pensions is well documented and finally well understood. The supporters of the programs claim that pensions are "modest" but the facts are different. California became one of the first in the nation to allow a "top one" rule for determining pension benefits. Thus, an employee can base pension benefits on the highest year of compensation rather than on the top or last three. This has helped to spike pension benefits. At the same time, when the stock market was rising, the unions encouraged lawmakers to suspend pension contributions for a couple of years. One estimate suggests that public employee pensions are underfunded by as much as $20,000 per capita in the state. Several of the cities that have declared bankruptcy in the state have claimed that a major portion of their fiscal distress comes from pension obligations. In many cities funding current and future pension obligations amounts to a major portion of the budget. Much of the spike in pensions came after the unions were funneled with all that cash.
Second, a perception that many public employees are over-paid. The last few years have been rough on public employees. The nonsense started by the former governor of using furloughs to tide us through budget deficits has declined the efficiency of the workforce and lowered employee pay and morale. Even with that many Californians believe that the expectation for performance in public employee jobs is almost nonexistent. That may be unfair. As noted here I have been very pleased with my encounters in renewing my drivers license and getting a fishing license.
Third, is the perception that many of the public unions, as explained by Senator Romero, are impediments to reliable change. There is a strong perception among many parents that schools are not working well in many places. The contracting procedures for public projects, like the addition to the Bay Bridge in Northern California, are byzantine and overly expensive.
Existing law allows employees who do not like the political priorities of their unions to opt out. The unions claim that few have. There are two realities here. First, many unions have made the opt out procedure difficult. At the same time, some unions have claimed that for those who opt out, the "representation fee" equals what the employee would have paid absent opting out.
The democrats in the legislature contrived to put this measure on the November ballot, in which they hoped that there would be a larger turnout of voters and presumably a more liberal electorate. But even that twist may turn. California is not expected to have anything approaching an exciting event on the ballot. There are three tax initiatives (which I will write about later) and a couple of other measures are the fare for initiatives. California has a death penalty repeal - but after the tragedy in Colorado that is likely to go down. And the most accurate polling on the presidential race is that Obama leads in the state by secure double digit margins. Early polling showed Proposition 32 ahead 60% to 28.9% (notice that there are few undecideds). The influx of huge amounts of public employee union donations could turn that tide before November.
If 32 passes, that won't mean an end to public employee bargaining. Indeed, what will change now is that employees will be required to "opt in" to political contributions rather than "opt out." But it will mean two things. First, the discretionary political funds of public employee unions will be diminished. Second, some members of the legislature may now be able to view a lot of issues with a less jaundiced eye. Like the open primary law, the effects will not be immediate but they could be very positive for a more responsive government in the longer term.