A story that still makes the rounds in Sacramento is that Governor Jerry Brown, speaking off-the-record to a group of business leaders back around 2009, admitted that the worst political decision of his life was signing legislation to permit public employees to form unions and engage in collective bargaining.
Whether or not Governor Brown actually said this, it is tantalizing to wonder what California would be like if over 1.0 million state and local government workers did NOT belong to a labor union. How would things be different?
Perhaps the biggest casualties of public employee unionization are California’s public schools. In 1975 the California Teachers Association (thanks to Brown signing the Educational Employment Relations Act) transitioned from being a professional association into a labor union. The negative consequences are far reaching.
The obvious way that unionizing teachers harms public education are the many work rules that have been negotiated. It is nearly impossible to fire a teacher for poor performance, instead – as was argued in the Vergara case, bad teachers get transferred to schools in disadvantaged communities where competent teachers are most needed. When layoffs occur, seniority is prioritized over merit. And tenure, i.e., lifetime employment – a concept originally developed in universities to protect free scientific inquiry – is granted K-12 teachers after less than two full years of classroom evaluation. All of this guarantees that California’s public schools do NOT have the caliber of educators they could, and union work rules are the reason why.
The less obvious ways unionizing teachers have harmed public education are equally significant. The rhetorical focus of unions is inherently adversarial. Us vs. them. Worker vs. oppressor. In California this rhetoric has been politicized by the left-wing activists who dominate the positions of leadership in the teachers unions. From the top down, it permeates public education, indoctrinating teachers and students with a one-sided, confrontational world view. Students are taught that Western Civilization is the villain of history, that “people of color” are always discriminated against, that “gender” is arbitrary, and that authoritarian solutions are necessary to protect the environment. Almost none of this is true, but nearly two generations of Californian voters were immersed with this propaganda throughout their K-12 years.
Union work rules haven’t just protected bad teachers while driving good ones out of the profession. This is true throughout the public sector, from teachers to public safety to bureaucrats. And thanks to unions, pay is not only disconnected from performance, but the rate of pay has gone out of control. California’s public servants, on average, now collect pay and benefits that are twice what a private sector worker earns for full time work.
Public sector benefits are even more out of control than public sector pay – a public sector retiree in California after a 30 year career can expect a pension that is 26% more than private sector workers still on the job; four-times what the average retiree can expect from Social Security.
Other than driving California’s cities, counties, and state government to the brink of bankruptcy, and nearly destroying our system of public education, what are the other consequences of unionized government? That answer is simple – they have taken political control of every supposed democratic institution in the state. Their political spending – they collect and spend over $1.0 billion in dues every year – dwarfs that of any other special interest. Their financial clout over politicians, combined with their influence over thousands of career operatives throughout the state’s regulatory agencies, force all other special interests to go through them. If you want legislation passed, you have to make deals with the government unions.
The core moral principle of unions, collectively standing up to oppression, is perverted in the public sector. Government workers, if anything, are tools of oppression, not victims of it. As it is they have set up two classes of citizens in California. Unionized government workers have job security, health security, retirement security, and pay scales that help to exempt them from the consequences of a politically contrived, punitively high cost of living. And then there are private sector workers, who have none of these privileges, yet pay the taxes to support this.
Unionized government protects its own interests before the public interest. It destroys public financial health, it undermines democracy, but worst of all, it takes away the sense of shared fate that is perhaps the most essential precondition for good government.
Imagine California without government unions. Public education would work because teachers and administrators could be held accountable. Policies to create prosperity and abundance would be endorsed by all voters, because all voters would share in the benefits. Government agencies at all levels would be lean and efficient because a billion dollar per year lobby perpetually favoring bigger government would not exist. Oligarchs and authoritarians would not have access to an omnipotent broker controlling the levers of power, which they could cozy up to for the benefit of the few, to the detriment of the many.
Ed Ring is the vice president of policy research for the California Policy Center.