Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Unions are strong in California now, but face peril

Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, whose entrance into the upper house was preceded by a bloody intra-party battle, talks with fellow Senator Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills at the Capitol on Thursday, June 11, 2015 in Sacramento, Calif.
Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, whose entrance into the upper house was preceded by a bloody intra-party battle, talks with fellow Senator Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills at the Capitol on Thursday, June 11, 2015 in Sacramento, Calif. rpench@sacbee.com

Only a sixth of California’s 15 million wage and salary workers belong to labor unions, most of them government workers.

On this Labor Day, it would be fair to say that without public employees, California’s 16.3 percent unionization rate, a bit above the national average, would be more like Oklahoma’s 6 percent.

While union members are a fairly small portion of the workforce, and have declined a bit in recent years, their leaders swing a big stick in the Capitol.

The Legislature’s Democratic majority is in almost complete thrall to the state’s unions, particularly those representing teachers, cops, firefighters and other public employees.

Many union-friendly legislators come straight out of union leadership positions.

Labor Day is not only a holiday for unions to celebrate, but the first day of the last week of the 2015 legislative session. And dozens of union-supported bills are floating around the Capitol, including some concepts still looking for landing sites.

They take several forms, from locking into law new employee rights and benefits that otherwise would be subject to collective bargaining, to virtually mandating that public works projects be done only by unionized contractors.

The latter is found in bills that confine projects to bidders who have “skilled and trained” workforces – essentially having union-backed apprenticeship programs.

Grocery clerk unions scored a big win when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill requiring companies acquiring unionized stores to retain their employees at least temporarily. It survived the dreaded “job killer” designation by the California Chamber of Commerce.

Another “job killer” bill that reached Brown outlaws mandatory arbitration as a precondition to employment.

It appears that unions are pushing their agendas more vigorously than usual this year, and dozens of other union-backed bills are certain to reach Brown, who has a seesaw relationship with labor leaders.

Perhaps the intensity has something to do with political and judicial trends that may be loosening labor’s grip on the Capitol.

Democrat Steve Glazer’s election to the Senate, despite a high-dollar union campaign against him, demonstrated the potential of California’s top-two primary system to change the dynamics of legislative contests. Unions can no longer fully control elections in Democratic districts.

The second threat to union hegemony is a California case now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court that could erase a law requiring non-members of unions to pay “agency fees” in unionized workplaces.

The court’s majority is likely to overturn the law and it has union leaders worried, because an adverse decision could deeply slash their dues income – money they use to get friendly legislators elected.

Tellingly, one draft bill floating around this week would enhance unions’ ability, should the court rule against them, to persuade current members not to drop memberships, and their dues payments.

  Comments