Taxpayers, who fund public employees’ platinum-plated pensions, deserve to know what happens at the bargaining table when their elected representatives negotiate contracts with public-employee unions. What they’d hear would likely alarm them.
But the door is locked. They’re not allowed in.
Consider legislation (Assembly Bill 1455) signed into law this year that hides the records of public-employee contract negotiations even deeper behind closed doors.
Public-sector collective bargaining has been controversial for decades. Franklin Roosevelt once wrote that, “the very nature and purposes of government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with government employee organizations.”
In 1955, George Meany, the first president of the AFL-CIO, conceded in a New York Times Magazine essay that “it is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”
This should be self-evident.
When private-sector unions bargain, there is opposition across the table. Management has a strong interest in not giving in to union dictates. But when public-sector unions bargain, both sides sit on the same side of the table. Too often, “negotiations” are a surrender to union demands. What’s good for the unions is good for the politicians.
Public-sector unions “carry an incredible amount of clout,” says Republican state Sen. John Moorlach of Orange County. “So, you don’t get a lot of pushback” from the elected officials who should be responsible stewards of taxpayers’ money.
Politicians are frequently more interested in the money that government unions lavish on them than they are in protecting taxpayers. Both “sides” also have a common interest in increasing the size and scope of government.
These dynamics, as well as the threat of strikes by government employees whose work, such as law enforcement and firefighting, is essential to public safety, caused the uneasiness once was held about public-employee collective bargaining.
Yet, 25 years after Roosevelt’s letter, and less than a decade after Meany’s warning, federal government workers were granted collective bargaining rights in the early 1960s. Collective bargaining rights for local government workers in California were granted in the 1960s, and for state workers and school employees in the 1970s.
Though their dollars are at stake, taxpayers don’t know what goes on during public-employee union negotiations. Moorlach, though, has witnessed the “nonsensical proposals that are offered to elected officials behind closed doors.” He’s even seen public-sector union representatives “walk in and ask for 10 percent pay raises” while everyone else was sweating through the Great Recession.
Consequently, Moorlach believes “that bargaining unit negotiations” that produce “secretive and expensive union deals” should be open to public scrutiny.
As a county supervisor, Moorlach introduced the Civic Openness in Negotiations ordinance. Naturally, “the statewide public employee unions came in full force and squashed” it, as well as another he introduced this year in the Legislature. That bill could have curbed the reckless spending that the East Bay Times editorial board says “occurs because negotiations between elected officials and the unions that often finance their political campaigns occur behind closed doors.”
Instead of more sunshine, taxpayers got Assembly Bill 1455, which the Times called an “insidious move to block taxpayers from knowing how their money is being bargained away, and what public employees’ raises and benefit enhancements will cost.”
According to the Senate floor analysis of the bill, it exempts from the California Public Records Act any documents related to collective bargaining between local public agencies and their unions. According to the nonprofit advocacy group Californians Aware, which fights for more openness and transparency in government, the bill is a response to an Orange County case involving a request for disclosure of documents on negotiations between the deputy sheriffs union and the county by a blogger. A California Superior Court judge released the documents after finding no authority in state law to withhold them.
While taxpayers are kept in the dark with new laws like Assembly Bill 1455, the state is drowning in public-employee pension debt. Stanford’s California Pension Tracker says the state’s public employees are owed nearly $1 trillion in retirement benefits. At least $300 billion, and as much as $600 billion, of that debt has no funding. When that deficit must be closed, policymakers will turn to taxpayers. They will be obligated by others to increase their “contributions” to public-employee pensions.
That’s too much to demand of a group whose dollars are regularly negotiated out of their wallets in secret.