Government unions rule California

On Monday, Jerry Brown starts his second run at governing the Golden State. He inherits a host of problems, some that date back to his first run as governor.

Collective bargaining for government employees in California started during Brown’s first administration in the 1970s. It has since grown into de facto rule by government employee unions. But the governor has no regrets.

“I’m very proud to have created this system that gave workers a choice,” he said in March in a speech to members of the Service Employees International Union, one of the most powerful government employee unions.

Earlier that month, when he was criticized for allowing collective bargaining for state employees, he said: “It is democratic, and I think we can make it work.”

Actually, the system Brown is proud of starting is not very democratic, but it certainly works well for government employee unions. They can elect those with whom they negotiate, and since there is no competition in government, the incentive is to make the most-extreme demands.

The incentive for politicians, in return for votes, is to give the government unions everything they want in pay, pensions and benefits, whether or not the state can afford it. This launches an endless cycle of spending, taxes and government growth, leading to our current unsustainable situation.

Besides a deficit of more than $25 billion, California faces massive unfunded pension and health care obligations — by some accounts in the hundreds of billions.

David Crane, an adviser to outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said money is already being diverted from education, transit, parks and other programs to pay only part of these obligations.

“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.”

That is not a very “democratic” system given that state employees are a tiny minority of California workers, and that, overall, unions represent less than 20 percent of all California workers. The more than 80 percent of California workers who are not union members are not elected by those with whom they negotiate.

But they must pay for the upscale salaries and benefits of state employees.

Also, government employee unions have an incentive to resist reforms that downsize government. Any proposal to trim government is certain to draw heated opposition from union bosses, who are not subject to a vote by the people.

Brown will have to make some cuts that may displease union bosses, but California’s second-chance governor remains happy with the system he set up. As long as rule by government employee unions prevails, the prospects for reform remain dim.

After the election, The Economist published a piece subtitled, “For once, California’s prospects seem better in the long term than in the short.”

However, the magazine’s special edition, The World in 2011, raises this possibility: “California’s new governor cancels its debt, declaring the nation’s most populous state bankrupt.”

K. Lloyd Billingsley is the editorial director of the Pacific Research Institute (www.pacificresearch.org).

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