Government by State Employees is Not Government by the People

SACRAMENTO—From Susanville to San Diego, California cities are struggling financially but now face more bad news. Assembly Bill 155, by Tony Mendoza, Artesia Democrat, would prevent California cities from filing for federal bankruptcy protection.

The union-backed bill would allow a union-friendly state agency, the California Debt and Investment Advisory Commission, to deny any municipal bankruptcy filing and keep intact all labor contracts. This measure invites a look at the power of government employee unions.

Not all states allow collective bargaining for state employees and California was once one of those. That changed in 1978, when the administration of California governor Jerry Brown gave state employees collective bargaining rights on top of their generous civil-service benefits. The consequences for the state are now painfully evident.

As Steven Malanga recently noted in City Journal, California’s government employee unions quickly learned how to “elect their own bosses—that is, sympathetic politicians who would grant them outsize pay and benefits in exchange for their support.” The results include “unaffordable benefits for civil servants; fiscal chaos in Sacramento and in cities and towns across the state; and angry taxpayers finally confronting the unionized masters of California’s unsustainable government.”

Fiscal chaos does not seem a stretch, and AB 155 takes it to new depths. Instead of dealing with the causes of municipal bankruptcy, it would deny cities the ability to seek protection. Clearly, government employee unions consider nothing beyond the limits of their power.

In March, California Attorney General Jerry Brown, a candidate for governor, addressed the issue of collective bargaining for state employees. “It’s democratic,” the Attorney General told reporters, “and I think we can make it work.” Those claims invite a look at the latest numbers on union membership from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

More union members, 7.9 million, now work for the government, as opposed to 7.4 million union workers in the private sector. But the union membership rate for public-sector workers is 37.4 percent. That means a full 62.6 percent of government employees, nearly two-thirds, are not union members. Local government employees are the most unionized, at 43.3 percent, but even here more than half, 56.7 percent, are not union members.

The percentage of all American workers who are members of a union in 2009 was only 12.3 percent. California has the most union members at 2.5 million, but only 18.3 percent of California workers, overall, are union members. That means 81.70 percent of California workers, the vast majority, are not union members.

“Workers” and “labor” are not synonymous with union members, and even in government the union profile can hardly be described as democratic. But Attorney General Brown is right in one sense.

Legislators can indeed make the system “work” for its sole beneficiaries – state employee unions. As Steven Greenhut observes in Plunder!, government union members can retire in their fifties with lavish benefits far beyond those of workers in the private sector, who must pay the tab.

David Crane, advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, recently noted in the Los Angeles Times that California is staring down the barrel of $500 billion in unfunded pension and health care obligations. This year, by his count, $5.5 billion was diverted from education, transit, parks and other programs to pay only a part of these obligations. Crane finds the dynamic troubling.

“Instead of a government of the people, by the people and for the people,” Crane wrote, “we have become a government of its employees, by its employees and for its employees.” Measures such as AB 155 make that observation difficult to deny.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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