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Washington Examiner

 

A Cautionary Tale About California's Budget-Busting Public-Sector Unions

October 06, 2010

By Steven Malanga

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A camera focuses on an official of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), 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 for most of their working life.

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 SEIU, the nation’s fastest growing union, illustrates how modern labor’s victories take place in courts and in back rooms, not on picket lines.

In the late 1980s, to take one example, the SEIU began eyeing a big jackpot: tens of thousands of home-health-care workers being paid by California’s county-run Medicaid programs. The SEIU initiated a long legal effort to have those workers, who were independent contractors, declared government employees.

When the courts finally agreed, the union then persuaded county supervisors to allow it to organize its workers--an easy task because governments rarely contest organizing campaigns, not wanting to seem anti-worker.

The SEIU’s biggest victory was winning representation for 74,000 home-health-care workers in Los Angeles County, the largest single organizing drive since the United Auto Workers unionized General Motors in 1937. Taxpayers paid a steep price: Home-health-care costs became the fastest-growing part of the Los Angeles County budget after the SEIU bargained for higher wages and benefits for these new recruits.

Today, the SEIU represents 700,000 California workers--more than a third of its nationwide membership. Of those, 350,000 are government employees.

The SEIU’s California numbers have given it extraordinary resources to pour into political campaigns. The union’s major locals contributed a hefty $20 million in 2005 to defeat a series of initiatives to cap government growth and rein in union power.

The SEIU has also spent millions over the years on initiatives to increase taxes, sometimes failing but on other occasions succeeding, as with a 2004 measure to impose a millionaires’ tax to finance more mental-health spending.

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.

One city, Vallejo, has already filed for bankruptcy to get out from under onerous employee salaries and pension obligations. Other local California governments, big and small, 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.

Original Source: http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/columns/OpEd-Contributor/A-cautionary-tale-about-California_s-budget-busting-public-sector-unions-1136534-104446603.html

 

 
 
 

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