Steven Greenhut: Guards union adds insult to injury

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association – the state prison guards’ union – is complaining about, and pursuing legal action against, the California government because of the supposed unfairness of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s furlough policy, which the union says forces some of its members to work on furlough days without pay. Yet the same union doesn’t mind stiffing the rest of us as its top officials do the union’s business without reimbursing the state.

In fact, CCPOA has been short-changing the state for millions of dollars, according to a spokeswoman for the California Department of Personnel Administration. A handful of the union’s top leaders spend their days doing union business rather than working at their prison jobs, and the union is supposed to reimburse taxpayers for the salaries and benefits related to those officials’ direct union work.

DPA’s Lynelle Jolley told me that CCPOA leaders have been on union leave since 2006 and remain on the state payroll. The state has yet to be reimbursed for what she estimates to be a $4 million tab. “We can’t figure out why it has taken this long for CCPOA to pay its tab to the state,” she said.

My call to the union went unreturned. The governor’s office, however, threatened legal action. “It is unacceptable that CCPOA refuses to pay the state what it is owed for time their members take off to run their union and perform union activities,” said Rachel Arrezola, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office. “CCPOA’s delay in reimbursing the state is only costing California taxpayers precious dollars, and if they continue to refuse, we are prepared to move forward with litigation.”

Public-employee contracts throughout California governments allow union members to take paid leave – pending approval by a supervisor – to carry on union business, mainly business associated with union negotiating and to represent employees involved in grievances. The Service Employees International Union’s Terry Brennan confirmed to me that such leave is common, although he insists that the number of employees involved is small and that the employees don’t get paid to engage in political activity.

Sources worry that a wide array of activities can easily end up getting covered under the broad definition of “contract negotiations” and that a surprisingly large number of employees take this paid leave to help the union. It’s worth asking why unions, which collect significant amounts of dues from their members, are allowed to offload their administrative costs onto taxpayers. Can’t they pay to run their own outfits?

Surely, this is a good area for legislative or contract reform – and, certainly, any unions that owe the state money to pay for their leaders to spend their days advocating political positions and advancing the interests of their special interest group ought to pay their tab or face real consequences.

It’s clear that tackling this union abuse is not going to close a $20 billion budget hole, but it could knock the unions on the defensive a bit. And from there the governor can take on the unions over proposed salary cuts of 5 percent, pension reform and layoffs. For instance, the governor is threatening cuts in the prison budget if the union doesn’t back away from its furlough action, and those cuts could save $200 million a year. Those are real potential savings.

But expect loud yelps of disapproval. The Los Angeles Times reported recently that “Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has put organized labor squarely in his cross-hairs in 2010, opening a fight that will largely determine the shape of his final year in office.” In the article, Democratic spokesman Steve Maviglio referred to the governor’s modest rollbacks in pay, benefits and special privileges as a jihad, which gives an idea of the hysterical rhetoric that reformers are up against.

There is hope. Orange County Republican Party Chairman Scott Baugh gave a speech to party members recently that received a good bit of publicity because he was willing to take on his fellow Republicans and offer some tough medicine for party candidates who are too cozy with public-employee unions.

Baugh first detailed the state’s obvious fiscal mess: “Our 50 states are in no better shape than our country, with $2 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities.” Then he agreed that fellow Republicans have “been just as guilty as Democrats.” He issued a new standard for candidates seeking OC GOP endorsements: “The standard will be whether you have a proven commitment to limited government.”

Granted, Baugh has supported some of these pro-union Republicans and recently put friendship in front of principle when he backed a former state senator’s wife (Linda Ackerman) over one of the county’s most principled supporters of limited government (Chris Norby) for the 72nd Assembly District race, which Norby won.

Still, we should celebrate good ideas. And Baugh – who told me Tuesday that he accepts his share of the blame for this situation – ended his talk with a good proposal: “No candidate will be supported by this party who receives contributions and endorsements from public employee unions.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. Union power needs to be attacked at its many sources, whether it means proposing pay and benefit cuts that are best for taxpayers but anger union officials, forcing unions to pay their tab to the state or exerting some countervailing political pressure to union muscle. It’s heartening that more California officials are recognizing this truth.

Steven Greenhut is director of the Pacific Research Institute’s Journalism Center ( and author of “Plunder! How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives And Bankrupting The Nation.”

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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