Monday, April 11, 2011




No one in California politics believes this state is about to see anything like the unprecedented statehouse live-in occupation staged earlier this year in Wisconsin, where public employee unions faced the threat of losing not just salary and benefits, but their hard-won bargaining rights.

“Of course that won’t happen here,” say anti-union Republicans like Stephen Frank, the former president of the arch-conservative California Republican Assembly. “The unions already own the state Capitol here.”

By that, Frank and others mean that because public employee unions like the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., the California Teachers Assn. and the Service Employees International Union were among the largest contributors to Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2010 campaign and also are prime funders of many Democratic state legislators, they will enjoy a free hand as long as their people stay in power.

But that’s not necessarily so. Just look at Los Angeles, where Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa – a former union organizer – frequently opposes the United Teachers of Los Angeles and other unions as he confronts both an underperforming school system and an unprecedented municipal deficit. Villaraigosa backed springtime ballot measures that increased the contributions of public employees to their pensions and has been forced to okay reductions in the city’s work force.

When public employees from police and schoolteachers to park rangers and social workers lose their jobs over fiscal issues, it’s hard to continue claiming union-backed candidates will never face up to financial realities.

No, Brown, who during his first go-‘round as governor in the 1970s signed a bill vastly expanding the bargains rights of public employees, will never join Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker in trying to roll those rights back.

But that doesn’t mean he will exempt them from cuts. Even while dealing with the state’s immediate deficit – which among other things will at the very least close some state parks, reduce the state’s prison population, exclude hundreds of thousands of university and college students and seriously cut in-home social services for the blind, elderly and developmentally disabled – Brown was proposing major changes to save money on public employee pensions.

His move will surely speed up a trend toward greater employee contributions deducted from paychecks. It will also likely mean a cap on the salaries that can be used to calculate future pensions and using an average of an employee's last three or five years' salaries as the pension base, rather than today’s practice of using the final year, which leads to “pension spiking,” as outgoing workers pad their last-year checks with extra overtime to increase their pensions in perpetuity.

Some of these changes will apply to current workers and not only to future hires, but it’s for sure virtually all these changes, and more, will apply to new workers.

So anyone who says Brown is essentially the property of the unions that helped him into office is dead wrong. What’s more, anyone who says that has not heard him talk to union bosses.

Here’s what he told David Sanchez, the president of the state’s largest teachers union, during one public meeting: “Our dilemma is that 60 percent of the people don’t want their schools cut, or fire or police,” Brown said. “But 60 percent also don’t want new taxes. That’s a problem.”

You bet it’s a problem, and by throwing it up to Sanchez, Brown was saying, “Your members will not be exempt from the consequences of the dilemma.”

That will be especially true if Brown can’t get the tax extensions he’s pushed since taking office onto a special election ballot sometime this year. If there are no extensions – or even if extensions do come – an internal memo from the Legislative Analysts office says there will surely be more hiring freezes, furloughs or even layoffs for state workers. And of course, voters two years ago rejected a tax proposal almost identical to what Brown wants.

The main difference between all this and Wisconsin is that Brown does not threaten to cut any union rights, just union members’ pay, benefits and maybe some jobs.

Yes, workers have often gone on strike against proposed give-backs of money and benefits, but in today’s California, it would be difficult for any public employee – union or not – to argue that some cutbacks are not needed.

The same reality plainly is hitting states from Texas to Wisconsin to Georgia, Nevada, Arizona and New Jersey, for just a few. It’s yet another example of how things that happen in California soon spread to the rest of America.

The bottom line: Expect no major confrontations between unions and California state officials. But at the same time, if you’re a public employee union member, expect major changes in your benefits and who pays for them.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

No comments:

Post a Comment