Fixing California: How to Loosen the Union Chokehold

The state can make reforms that are both better for governance and fairer to union workers than the status quo.


A common theme in much of the "Fixing California" series has been the central role of union power in preserving a Golden State status quo that helps the few and harms the many.

In schools, the interests of unionized teachers trump the needs of students. In local government, the compensation given to unionized workers often reflects their political clout, not the pay and benefits necessary to keep them on the job. In the Legislature, public employees are so powerful that union lobbyists have been known to openly browbeat lawmakers who don't do their bidding.

So how can Californians loosen this union chokehold? By adopting a reform that's both better for governance and fairer to union workers than the status quo.

The reform, known by the shorthand of "paycheck protection," typically requires unions to have the permission of individual members before their dues are used for anything but collective bargaining.

Six states have adopted such a reform. Easily the most liberal of the six is Washington, where voters adopted this requirement as part of a popular campaign-reform push in 1992 that was opposed by unions but supported by many union members.

What followed was a relentless 15-year campaign of subterfuge and sabotage by unions and their Democratic allies in Washington's legislature and court system. But in 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for implementation of the law following its original intent.

Since then, the politics of the state have evolved in interesting ways. While voters embraced gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana in 2012 initiatives, they are increasingly represented by more pragmatic and less ideological Democrats. In spring 2012, such Democrats teamed with minority Republican senators to pass a fiscally conservative state budget. Later in the year, two Democrats decided to caucus with minority Republicans in a coalition running the state Senate in an attempt to force a more centrist course for Washington, which has had Democratic governors continuously since 1985.

Perhaps these moderating developments would have happened without paycheck protection. But they would have been less likely. In Washington state politics, the same as everywhere, money talks.

There is a good chance that California would have a similar evolution with paycheck protection in place. The social liberalism of most residents would still influence policy. But on fiscal, budget and compensation questions, if the California Teachers Association, the California Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union could only throw their weight around using the dues of members who wanted such activism, government policy would reflect less union-first dogmatism.

Unfortunately, the last time reformers brought paycheck protection before California voters — via Proposition 32 on the November 2012 ballot — they didn't trust voters enough to just give them a straightforward up-or-down vote on whether union members should have a say on the use of their dues. Instead, the initiative included legally dubious provisions restricting corporate campaign spending that gave critics ample ammunition to depict it as a deceptive power play.

The measure lost in a landslide. But state voters came fairly close to passing cleaner, simpler versions of paycheck protection in 1998 and 2005.

The appalling story of former Los Angeles Unified elementary schoolteacher Mark Berndt would make a simple version of paycheck protection much easier to pass in 2014 or 2016. After evidence turned up indicating Berndt had been feeding sperm to his students, district officials had no choice but to pay Berndt $35,000 to get him to quit because of job protections demanded and won by United Teachers Los Angeles.

When the Berndt case triggered a public backlash, the state Legislature earlier this year passed a teacher-discipline measure that was billed as a smart way to keep perverts away from students. Instead, it actually gave teachers even more job protections.

Nothing better illustrates the unions' chokehold on Sacramento than this. If the CTA and the CFT had less money for political fights, maybe, just maybe, the public would have gotten its way — and parents wouldn't have cause to think that state lawmakers worry more about protecting predatory teachers than the students of such teachers.

This article originally appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune.