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Davis, California

Friday, April 19, 2024

Column: Union dues

Perhaps no other part of the Constitution is mentioned more than the first amendment. Most people can name free speech, but it isn’t the only protected expression in the first amendment.

The freedom of assembly applies to another large part of American civil and political life. Citizens have the right to form and organize unions and should not be prevented from doing so.

Trade unions have a long history in the United States and in California. Their role has traditionally been to advocate for members, which means that they try to bargain with employers for better pay and working conditions.

For private sector unions, bargaining takes place between union leaders and company executives. Public sector unions bargain and negotiate with politicians. Politicians are supposed to work on behalf of their constituents, which are the taxpaying citizens that ultimately pay the salaries of public workers.

In California, this process has changed and threatens the future of the state. The natural forces that are supposed to lead to fair salaries and benefits for state workers have been thrown out of whack.

A change in the relationship between public unions and elected officials became more entrenched in the early 1990s. Politicians decided that instead of constantly fighting against union bosses over salaries and benefits they could work with them in exchange for campaign support. State workers’ benefits increased dramatically, and retirement pensions rose to come close to or even surpass their working salaries.

This may sound like a wonderful deal. After all, many of these state workers are police officers and firefighters, and most people are willing to open up their pocket book to fund the people who make sacrifices for us and protect us. Many of these workers and their families have certainly benefited from this generous list of benefits. I would have to include myself as a beneficiary, since I am the offspring of a retired public union member.

Unfortunately, the cost of this system has become dire for the state of California. Removal of the check on the power of union bosses to demand higher salaries and benefits have made these expenses increasingly difficult to meet for California citizens who are a part of the private sector. The economic downturn simply revealed how untenable this situation is.

For instance, the California city of Vallejo had to declare bankruptcy in 2008 because it could not afford to pay its public workers. By filing for bankruptcy, the city could basically revoke the benefits and pensions of many workers. Whatever promises are made to union members can evaporate in an instant if the city runs out of money. While a city or state filing for bankruptcy is very rare, it is obviously a horrible situation for both taxpayers as well as public workers.

It should be no surprise that California taxpayers become bitter toward unions and politicians. It is as if you hired an attorney to represent you in court and he worked with the prosecution to get you convicted. People begin to question just whom politicians are working for. After all, it’s not a politician that pays the salary of state workers. A raw deal for the state only hurts politicians if they can’t get re-elected. The power and financial resources of unions can help them do just that, and pulling the wool over the eyes of the electorate can make this situation stable for a while.

Simply blaming public workers for this mess is both unfair and uncalled for. There is no reason why a state worker would turn down better money or extra benefits. The problem lies with a system controlled by top-down organization that is controlled by a few powerful people, and with politicians that are either working in their favor or who are afraid of disturbing the powers that be.

Public union workers have little choice about what politicians they want to represent them, as their dues are used by the leaders to donate to whatever campaign they decide. While the argument is that this strengthens the power of unions in the political process, it also severely limits the choices of the members and can sometimes pit them up against other California citizens.

Instead of a constant process of negotiation that ends in a compromise, California voters might take drastic actions against a perceived loss of representation and unfair financial burdens. It has happened before in California and could certainly happen again.

JARRETT STEPMAN supports many state workers, especially firefighters and police officers, but is afraid that poor policies and financial constraints could damage the state of California. He can be reached at jstepman@ucdavis.edu.


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