Budget-busting public-sector unions offer cautionary tale

A camera focuses on an official of the Service Employees International Union, California’s largest public employees union, sitting in a legislative chamber and speaking into a microphone. “We helped to get you into office, and we got a good memory,” she says to the elected officials outside the shot. “Come November, if you don’t back our program, we’ll get you out of office.”

The video has become a sensation among California taxpayer groups for its vivid depiction of the audacious power that public-sector unions wield in their state. The unions’ political triumphs have molded a California in which government workers thrive.

The state’s public school teachers are the highest-paid in the nation. Its prison guards can easily earn six-figure salaries. State workers can retire at 55 with pensions higher than their base pay.

Meanwhile, what was once the most prosperous state now suffers from an unemployment rate far steeper than the nation’s, and a flood of firms and jobs fleeing high taxes and stifling regulations. This toxic combination — high public-sector employee costs and sagging economic fortunes — has produced recurring budget crises in Sacramento and in virtually every municipality in the state.

How public employees became members of the elite class in a declining California offers a cautionary tale to the rest of the country. And the rise in California of the SEIU illustrates how modern labor’s victories take place in courts and in back rooms, not on picket lines.

Today, the SEIU represents 700,000 California workers — more than one-third of its nationwide membership. Of those, 350,000 are government employees. The SEIU has also spent millions over the years on initiatives to increase taxes.

Only too late have Californians recognized the true magnitude of their fiscal problems created by the tidal wave of taxing and spending advocated by public unions.

Municipalities around the state are buckling under massive labor costs. Vallejo has already filed for bankruptcy to get out from under onerous employee salaries and pension obligations. Other local governments are nearing disaster.

In the past, California could always rely on a rebounding economy to save it from its budgetary excesses. But few still view the state as the land of opportunity.

More and more California taxpayers are realizing how stacked the system is against them. They are also coming to understand that reform will come slowly, if it comes at all.

Steven Malanga is senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of “Shakedown: The Continuing Conspiracy Against the American Taxpayer.”

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