Dan Walters

Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California unions hold power but face peril

Published: Monday, Sep. 3, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:16 pm

Anyone who was paying attention to the California Legislature during the hectic final days of the 2012 session last week could see the political clout of the state's labor unions.

Countless union-backed bills whipped through the Capitol and onto Gov. Jerry Brown's desk. Although union lobbyists lost a few battles, they could count many more victories.

With the Legislature's Democratic majority utterly beholden to unions for political sustenance and with a governor, Jerry Brown, whose 2010 campaign relied on union financing, unions and their 2.4 million members are at the apogee of political influence.

Nevertheless, Labor Day 2012 also finds those unions facing a ballot measure that could erode their political influence as they face declining popularity and long-term membership shrinkage.

The ballot measure, Proposition 32, is the latest of several attempts by conservative groups to crack the unions' hegemony by prohibiting them from obtaining political funds from members via paycheck deductions without specific permission.

This version appears to be faring better than its predecessors because its sponsors adopted a sleight-of-hand political tactic that the unions themselves have employed in the past – wrapping something attractive to voters around something controversial.

Unions used it two years ago to persuade voters to change the vote requirement on state budgets from two-thirds to a simple majority, pairing it with another provision that would cut off legislators' salaries if budgets missed a June 15 deadline.

Proposition 32 includes a provision that appears to – but doesn't really – restrict corporate political contributions, forcing the unions to spend millions, and perhaps tens of millions, of dollars to oppose it. Proposition 32 also benefits from the unions' declining public standing, as demonstrated by overwhelming approval of city pension rollbacks in San Jose and San Diego.

Whatever happens on Proposition 32, however, the unions face an erosion of membership.

As it happens, not only does California have 2.4 million union members, but 2.4 million government employees, and there is a huge correlation between those two numbers. Almost all public workers are union members – thanks largely to collective bargaining legislation that Brown signed nearly 40 years ago during his first stint as governor – while union membership in the much-larger private sector has continued a steep decline.

Total union membership in California has scarcely moved in the last 20 years, even as California's population grew by 8 million and its employed workforce by 2 million. Meanwhile, state and local governments have been shedding employees due to deep and structural budget deficits.

California's unions are still very powerful – but for how long?

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Dan Walters



Dan Walters, political columnist

Dan Walters

Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than a half-century, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. At one point in his career, at age 22, he was the nation's youngest daily newspaper editor.

He joined The Sacramento Union's Capitol bureau in 1975, just as Jerry Brown began his first governorship, and later became the Union's Capitol bureau chief. In 1981, Walters began writing the state's only daily newspaper column devoted to California political, economic and social events and, in 1984, he and the column moved to The Sacramento Bee. He has written more than 7,500 columns about California and its politics and his column now appears in dozens of California newspapers.

Email: dwalters@sacbee.com
Phone: 916-321-1195
Twitter: @WaltersBee

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