California

Union Chief, to the California He Helped Drive Into the Ditch: "I think democracy is an ugly thing"

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My former colleagues at the L.A. Times editorial board, perhaps in an act of unconscious penance for writing one of the worst single editorials (about Tuesday's special election in California, natch) that I have ever read in my life, do the nation a solid by publishing the transcript of their conversation with Service Employees Union International chief Andy Stern, one of the most powerful Americans you might not have heard of. Read (and weep at) the whole thing, but this section in particular was telling, given the link between public sector unionism and California's ongoing breakdown:

Robert Greene, L.A. Times:  As an editorial page, we found it relatively easy and straightforward to support the organizing effort for the security officers and locally for the contract that they won. Speaking for myself, I'm finding it more and more difficult to get excited about the union in the context of representing government workers in both Los Angeles city and county, especially in difficult budget times when the government has to play off a union contract against steep cuts in services. I'm getting increasingly concerned about the unions' influence—I mean, congratulations for it, but I'm getting increasingly concerned about the unions' influence and ability to support candidates and to get the backing of candidates. I realize that from your perspective that's a great success, but what's your response to –I'm not alone in this—what's your response to people who are expressing that concern?

O, what a man I was

Stern: Democracy is an ugly picture sometimes, people do have rights, the business community does similar things from the outside. We used to always complain about how many of our members can give a $5,000, $25,000, $30,000 check to a candidate. How many people have the same ability to get their contract, subcontract? I think government has always been a place where a variety of interests—if you go to Washington there's a whole K Street group of people that spend their life trying to shape policy. The fact that we're organized from inside as opposed to organized from outside you may think has more advantages, but any organized voting bloc of any kind, or any organized financial bloc, honestly impacts democracy. That's just the system we've set up, and no one seems to mind that the Chamber of Commerce can fly 100 people in and threaten to not elect people if they don't do things because they either don't have a union contract or they're not government employees. I don't know how you stop people from participating. …

So you really have to get to the question, are we going to ban public employees from participating in the political process, because it's not the fact they have a contract, it's the fact they have an organized amount of power to impact things. I don't think we're ready to ban that in this country. …

Greene: There was a time 100 years ago where Californians were so concerned about the influence of a particular interest—in that case it was the railroad—that they completely changed the state Constitution and the way elections are run in order to blunt that influence. It seems to me that there hasn't been any interest until SEIU that has even approached that kind of influence, and there are folks talking about changing the Constitution now to plug that interest in a similar manner.

Stern: There have been attempts for a long period of time to do a number of things about electoral reform. … There are obviously people like me who believe there should be … only public financing of campaigns. Anything else really distorts the system. There are people like me who believe the initiative process has been perverted by special interests who can afford to buy signatures to put things on the ballot. So I think we have a political process that has lots of different issues. I would say in a time of crisis people will focus on why did the unions do certain things. … I think there's another question of how did the government get bought and paid for by George Bush so that our regulatory apparatus didn't function and we ended up sort of crashing the entire American economy. …

I think democracy is an ugly thing at times; it just happens to be the best thing we've found, and I think there will always be a debate about what's the right financial support involvement that people are allowed to have.

Hat tip to Bret Jacobson.