What if California’s Government Never Unionized?

UnionA story that still makes the rounds in Sacramento is that Gov. Jerry Brown, speaking off-the-record to a group of business leaders back around 2009, admitted that the worst political decision of his life was signing legislation to permit public employees to form unions and engage in collective bargaining.

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Whether or not Gov. Brown actually said this, it is tantalizing to wonder what California would be like if over 1 million state and local government workers did NOT belong to a labor union. How would things be different?

Perhaps the biggest casualties of public employee unionization are California’s public schools. In 1975 the California Teachers Association (thanks to Brown signing the Educational Employment Relations Act) transitioned from being a professional association into a labor union. The negative consequences are far reaching.

The obvious way that unionizing teachers harms public education are the many work rules that have been negotiated. It is nearly impossible to fire a teacher for poor performance, instead – as was argued in the Vergara case, bad teachers get transferred to schools in disadvantaged communities where competent teachers are most needed. When layoffs occur, seniority is prioritized over merit. And tenure, i.e., lifetime employment – a concept originally developed in universities to protect free scientific inquiry –  is granted K-12 teachers after less than two full years of classroom evaluation. All of this guarantees that California’s public schools do NOT have the caliber of educators they could, and union work rules are the reason why.

The less obvious ways unionizing teachers have harmed public education are equally significant. The rhetorical focus of unions is inherently adversarial. Us vs. them. Worker vs. oppressor. In California this rhetoric has been politicized by the left-wing activists who dominate the positions of leadership in the teachers unions. From the top down, it permeates public education, indoctrinating teachers and students with a one-sided, confrontational world view. Students are taught that Western Civilization is the villain of history, that “people of color” are always discriminated against, that “gender” is arbitrary, and that authoritarian solutions are necessary to protect the environment. Almost none of this is true, but nearly two generations of Californian voters were immersed with this propaganda throughout their K-12 years.

Union work rules haven’t just protected bad teachers while driving good ones out of the profession. This is true throughout the public sector, from teachers to public safety to bureaucrats. And thanks to unions, pay is not only disconnected from performance, but the rate of pay has gone out of control. California’s public servants, on average, now collect pay and benefits that are twice what a private sector worker earns for full time work.

Public sector benefits are even more out of control than public sector pay – a public sector retiree in California after a 30 year career can expect a pension that is 26 percent more than private sector workers still on the job; four-times what the average retiree can expect from Social Security.

Other than driving California’s cities, counties and state government to the brink of bankruptcy, and nearly destroying our system of public education, what are the other consequences of unionized government? That answer is simple – they have taken political control of every supposed democratic institution in the state. Their political spending – they collect and spend over $1 billion in dues every year – dwarfs that of any other special interest. Their financial clout over politicians, combined with their influence over thousands of career operatives throughout the state’s regulatory agencies, force all other special interests to go through them. If you want legislation passed, you have to make deals with the government unions.

The core moral principle of unions, collectively standing up to oppression, is perverted in the public sector. Government workers, if anything, are tools of oppression, not victims of it. As it is they have set up two classes of citizens in California. Unionized government workers have job security, health security, retirement security, and pay scales that help to exempt them from the consequences of a politically contrived, punitively high cost of living. And then there are private sector workers, who have none of these privileges, yet pay the taxes to support this.

Unionized government protects its own interests before the public interest. It destroys public financial health, it undermines democracy, but worst of all, it takes away the sense of shared fate that is perhaps the most essential precondition for good government.

Imagine California without government unions. Public education would work because teachers and administrators could be held accountable. Policies to create prosperity and abundance would be endorsed by all voters, because all voters would share in the benefits. Government agencies at all levels would be lean and efficient because a billion dollar per year lobby perpetually favoring bigger government would not exist. Oligarchs and authoritarians would not have access to an omnipotent broker controlling the levers of power, which they could cozy up to for the benefit of the few, to the detriment of the many.

Ed Ring is the vice president of policy research for the California Policy Center.

This piece was originally published by UnionWatch.org


  1. retiredxlr8r says

    Public employee unions are immoral!
    They are unethical as they are not dealing with the management of a company that exists for profits but with an individual who will take their money for campaign promises that are paid for by taxpayers and not the politician who promises favors. Unethical means that they are illegal.
    Brown was criminal when he approved public employee unions and those unions and politicians are criminal today when they steal from taxpayers to fund their lifestyle and goals.
    Today’s legislature is complicit because they continue to allow it.
    California loses!
    And California is also committing suicide because to public employee unions.

  2. True Teacher says

    I agree with this website’s position about the inordinate power that the CTA has in creating a one-party dictatorship in our state. I think union reform is needed as long as sound public policy is being compromised by the political action of one big player. Even Democrats have joined in against the reach of this union’s power by forming an anti-union group called “Democrats for Education Reform.” From what I have gathered, this group is hostile toward the iron grip of the education unions and wants to destroy them–and they are Democrats.

    As an insider and a teacher with experience in both the private school and the public school sectors, Mr. Ring and Mr. Sand keep missing the point: is it really about “bad teachers” or a bad system? Do you realize the difference that leverage makes? Public schools cannot get rid of the students who disrupt, slack off, etc, etc, etc. Hey, Mr. Ring and DFER advocates, hear this: I AM ALL IN FAVOR OF TEACHER AND ADMINISTRATIVE ACCOUNTABILITY! Just give me leverage as a classroom teacher in some of the following ways, and please research the type of policy changes that will bring it about:

    1. Don’t threaten me with administrative sanctions if I give a lot of D and F grades because students are woefully prepared prior to entering my classroom. Don’t call me a bad teacher (nobody has, as yet) if I stand tough and actually try to hold students and their parents accountable.

    2. Don’t issue threats against me when I react vehemently against a culture of school nonsense and fun with innumerable classroom interruptions, right after the administrator says he demands bell to bell instruction.

    3. And don’t tell me I don’t know how to teach if I think drilling facts is better for students than pie-in-the-sky learn by discovery methods via “social and cooperative learning” theories.

    4. Don’t tell me I’m not a good teacher when, by law, I cannot tell students they even have to pay for the paper and pencils they must have to do homework.

    Lastly, the men and women I work with don’t like the anti-patriotic historical revisionism that is being foisted on us. Please, someone, show me the link between this and the union. I’m not arguing that a link does not exist, but that I’ve never seen the evidence. Wouldn’t this be something that comes from policy makers?

    I think the main fallacy in recent articles here is the “teachers and administrators are unaccountable” story. And this is being repeated in order to blame teachers so as to end the power of unions. But, trust me when I tell you this: the difference between a successful teacher and an unsuccessful one, and between a sound administrator and an unsound one, is CONTROL. Where on earth does one execute job responsibilities without reciprocal authority? Consider:

    School boards hire a superintendent and demand he/she produce results.
    Superintendents hire principals and demand they produce results.
    Principals hire teachers and demand they produce results.
    Teachers teach students and demand they produce results….

    …and then what happens?

    There is where accountability stops! Try being a teacher right at this critical point.

    I’ve seen good men and women teachers demand excellence only to be thwarted by a system that coddles children and makes excuses for them. So, if the union has created this and the progressives who have captured the education bureaucracy and have passed the laws that have made it this way–so that both teachers and students are set up for failure–then please provide more evidence.

    If I have not made it clear here, I am not defending the union; I am defending teachers who are tired of being given huge responsibilities without the requisite authority to go with their responsibilities.

    Once you have created the conditions for learning to take place–by empowering adults who are closest to the students–and once you take all of the nonsense out of the school culture, a culture where activity directors control the climate of the school, instead of academics being in control–you won’t convince anyone that you mean business. I mean business because I value education, and if more conservatives valued public education the last fifty years and fought just as hard in this domain as the progressives, instead of ceding it to them, we would have more educated people today who would never have elected The Great Divider back in ’08. And, you would have a populace today who would know what the founding fathers meant by popular sovereignty, limited government, checks and balances, separation of powers, virtue, ad infinitum.

    Now, try giving this speech to the next parent who wants to meet with you and the principal because their dumbed-down student isn’t succeeding in your class.

  3. John Shipman says

    I would like to see teachers paid based upon 1) what they teach. There is no way a HS advanced biology teacher should get paid the same as an elementary PE teacher. One teaches photosynthesis, and the other teaches dodge ball. 2) the quality of their instruction. Simple measure, when considered over several years, should give you an idea of the quality of a teacher. Measure student knowledge at the beginning of the year, and measure it again at the end of the school year. I’m not saying one year should be perfect, but over 5-10 years, this measure will give an indicator of teacher performance. Pay the better ones more.

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