Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California unions’ dominance of Democratic Party may be fading

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

When Jerry Brown signed legislation giving California’s public employees collective bargaining rights during his first governorship, he – wittingly or otherwise – began a major political shift.

The legislation re-energized organized labor, and in the ensuing years, unions – particularly public employee unions – became the state’s most influential interest group, providing resources for the Democrats’ rise to dominance.

The party and the unions essentially became a single entity. For example, both Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg arose from union employment, the former as an organizer and the latter as an attorney.

Unions remain California Democrats’ most important constituency, and will be indefinitely, but there are some indications that union hegemony within the party may be fraying.

The most public example is the complex, multifront battle that pits the state’s union-dominated education establishment against civil rights and reform groups over the direction of public schools. It’s essentially a Democrat vs. Democrat battle, waged within big-city school boards, in the Legislature, in the state Board of Education and in the courts.

The establishment contends that the schools’ shortcomings can be solved with more money – a lot more money. The California Teachers Association-led Education Coalition reiterated this month that it wants spending to rise to the average of the nation’s 10 highest-spending states, which would cost $30-plus billion more a year.

Reformers don’t oppose spending more, but contend that union rules and the education bureaucracy are thwarting efforts to do more for students, particularly poor and English-learner children. A lawsuit now being tried in Los Angeles is the current venue for the years-long battle.

Unions may also be losing some of their hegemony in legislative elections, as business groups increasingly play in Democratic politics.

In 2012, two Democrats, Marc Levine of San Rafael and Richard Bloom of Santa Monica, defeated union-backed Assembly incumbents, and several others bested Democratic union-backed rivals for open seats.

This year, Steve Glazer, Brown’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign manager who advised the California Chamber of Commerce on 2012 races, is running for the Assembly in Contra Costa County as an outspoken critic of unions. His chief rival, Dublin Mayor Tim Sbranti, has heavy union support.

A few nonunion Democrats would not seem to be a big deal, but it makes a significant difference when leaders want supermajorities to pass tax increases, constitutional amendments and other union-backed measures requiring two-thirds votes.

It would be ironic were Glazer to become the Assembly’s 54th Democratic vote, thus holding the hammer on such issues.