This November, California voters must decide two policy questions of great concern to public-sector unions. One is a tax hike to stave off further cuts to state spending (there are two versions on the ballot with a chance of passing). The other is a "paycheck protection" measure that would ban the practice of unions' deducting money from member paychecks to spend on political activism. Public-sector union members stand to benefit from the tax increase, and they are campaigning heavily for one version, Proposition 30, which is being promoted by Governor Jerry Brown. Conversely, the unions stand to lose money and power if paycheck protection passes, and they are working hard to defeat it.
To understand what these political battles teach us about the outsize influence of public-sector unions in California politics, this study examines how public-sector unions have fared on proposition campaigns since 1980. (1980 is the starting year because it marks the beginning of the trend to decide major policy questions by "direct-democracy" elections and because most public employees in California had been unionized by that year.)
The direct-democracy process—in which any person or group can place a question before the electorate, if they can collect enough signatures in support of it—plays to the political strengths of public-sector unions. Union members are easy to mobilize for signature drives and get-out-the-vote operations. Unions have a steady and stable revenue stream for political activism, as monies are deducted directly from members' paychecks by government and funneled into union coffers. Their members tend to have higher levels of education than most citizens, which correlates with more electoral participation. In low-turnout contests, which ballot measures can be, union members can constitute a higher proportion of the electorate. And unlike businesses and other stakeholders, public-sector unions focus on a few core issues, thus concentrating their firepower.
This study tracks the effects of these unusual advantages. In the initiative process, we find that public-sector unions have played a big role in pushing for higher taxes and thwarting reform—all in an effort to maintain a status quo that favors their needs at the expense of the public interest. Unions are also highly influential in the state legislature, so their effectiveness in the initiative process makes them arguably the single most powerful political force in the Golden State.
Public-sector unions have taken a position on 42 percent of the 178 ballot initiatives over the last 30 years. Voters ratified nearly half the measures they supported, and 75 percent of the measures that the unions opposed were defeated. In other words, unions are fairly effective playing "offense," working to win their goals at the ballot box. But they are extraordinarily effective playing "defense," using initiative campaigns to block proposals that threaten their interests.
Even these figures may understate the extent to which unions have succeeded in using initiative campaigns to meet their policy goals: we found that whenever a proposal was especially important to the unions, such that they pulled out all the stops in their campaign efforts, they almost always won.
In these big battles, public-employee unions often outspend and out-mobilize their opponents by huge margins. A large majority of these fights have been over education policy, with the teachers' unions being the central actor. For example, among the unions' victories was Proposition 98 in 1988, which mandated that 40 percent of the state's general fund be spent annually on K–12 education and community colleges. That measure has greatly constricted the state's fiscal flexibility, reduced efficiency in public education, and helped make California's teachers the most expensive in the country. In opposition, the teachers' unions twice defeated proposals for school vouchers and other proposals to bring more accountability to the state's public schools.
What does this analysis portend for the election this November? Our analysis suggests that the vote on the tax increase is likely to be very close, and the unions will probably be able to defeat the paycheck-protection measure for a third time.
It is important to remember that politics has consequences for policy. In their campaigns, unions have won increased government spending, less accountability and efficiency in education, and protections for their own political power. In so doing, they have managed to stymie reforms that might well have improved the performance of California's public institutions and lessened the severity of the fiscal crisis that the state now faces.