By PETER SCHEER—For public employee unions–those representing police, firefighters, teachers, prison guards and agency workers of all kinds at the state and local level–these are the worst of times.
Despite record high membership and dues, and years of unparalleled clout in state capitols, public sector unions find themselves on the defensive, desperately trying to hold on to past gains in the face of a skeptical press and angry voters. So far has the zeitgeist shifted against them that, on one recent weekend, government employees were the butt of a Saturday Night Live skit, followed, the next day, by a New York Times magazine cover article proclaiming the “Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand.”
Public unions’ traditional strength–the ability to finance their members’ rising pay and benefits through tax increases–has become a liability. Although private sector unions always have had to worry that consumers will resist rising prices for their goods, public sector unions have benefited from the fact that taxpayers can’t choose–they are, in effect, “captive consumers.”
At some point, however, voters turn resentful as they sense that: (1) they are underwriting, through their taxes, a level of salary and benefits for government employment that is better than what they and their families have; and (2) government services, from schools to the DMV, are not good enough—not for the citizen individually nor the public generally—to justify the high and escalating cost.
We are at that point.
In California, government sector unions, once among the most entrenched and powerful labor groups in the country, mainly have themselves to blame. For most of the post-war period, they were a force for progressive change, prospering by winning over public support for their agenda.
In the 1970s and 80s they backed laws like the Public Records Act and Brown Act to make state and local government more transparent. Because unions enjoyed broad-based political support, efforts to enhance government accountability and responsiveness to voters were seen–correctly–as benefiting the unions and their members.The public interest and public employees’ interests were aligned.
But the unions switched strategies. Although the change was gradual, by the 1990s California’s government unions had decided that, rather than cultivate voter support for their objectives, they could exert more influence in the Legislature, and in the political process generally, by lavishing campaign contributions on lawmakers. Adopting the tactics of other special interest groups, government unions paid lip service to democratic principles while excelling at the fundamentally anti-democratic strategy of writing checks to legislators, their election committees and PACs.
While not illegal (in fact, such contributions are constitutionally protected), the unions’ aggressive spending on candidates puts them on the same moral low ground as casino-owning tribes, insurance companies and other special interests that have concluded that the best way to influence the legislative process is to, well, buy it.
Public unions in California turned distrustful of voters and ambivalent about government transparency. In the mid-1990s unions backed improvements to the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, but also inserted a provision assuring that the public would have no access to collective bargaining agreements negotiated by cities and counties—often representing 70 percent or more of their total operating budgets—until after the agreements are signed.
What happens when voters and the press have no opportunity to question elected officials about how they propose to pay for a lower retirement age, healthcare for retirees’ dependents, richer pension formulas and the like? The officials make contractual promises that are unaffordable, unsustainable (and, in general, don’t come due until after those elected officials have left office). In the case of Vallejo, in northern California, this veil of secrecy, and the symbiotic relationship it fosters, has led to municipal bankruptcy.
The harm to the credibility of public employee unions from these excesses is made far worse by the unions’ attempts to hide them. The revelations about pay and pension abuses have surfaced only as a result of lawsuits. (Disclosure: The First Amendment Coalition has been a plaintiff in several of these cases.) Public employee unions, rather than taking the lead to stop abusive compensation practices, have vigorously opposed disclosure of individual employees’ salaries and pension amounts.
Public employee unions need to reboot. The old strategy of cynically buying political influence and excluding the public from decision-making has run its course. Unions can rebuild public support by recommitting to an agenda of open government in the public interest. If they don’t, they will be further marginalized.
Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.