Four decades ago, Jerry Brown signed legislation granting collective bargaining rights to teachers, police, firefighters and other public employees.
The rationale was parity – that government workers should, like those in private employment, be able to join unions and have them negotiate labor contracts with state and local governments.
However, the public employee unions, unlike their private-sector counterparts, could influence those negotiations by getting union-friendly politicians elected to the governorship and other statewide offices, to the Legislature and to thousands of city councils, school boards, county boards of supervisors and governing boards of special districts.
The unions quickly became, collectively, the most powerful players in California politics, spending tens of millions of dollars each year on campaign contributions, lobbying and other forms of political action, largely favoring Democrats.
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It’s paid off, particularly in improving pensions and other fringe benefits and fending off occasional efforts to curb those benefits.
Even as the big public employee unions such as the California Teachers Association pursue their agendas this year in the Legislature and in ballot measures – on taxes, particularly – a pending U.S. Supreme Court case threatens to reduce their political power.
On Monday, the court heard arguments in a California case that challenges state law requiring non-union members to pay what unions call a “fair share” of union representation costs.
The plaintiffs, California teachers backed by some anti-union groups, argue that the “fair share” law forces them to contribute to CTA political causes they oppose because it’s impossible to separate political from supposedly nonpolitical activities.
Judging from comments during the arguments – especially from Anthony Kennedy, a Californian who wields the swing vote between conservative and liberal wings of the court – it’s likely the unions will lose.
“The union is basically making the teachers ‘compelled riders’ on issues with which they strongly disagree,” Kennedy said at one point.
The decision won’t come down for months – too late for it to make a difference in union political activities this year.
However, if the court rules as expected, it could make a big dent in the future political power of California’s public unions.
The big unknown is how much unions’ membership would drop if their dues become voluntary, rather than mandatory.
Unions that represent relatively highly paid workers such as teachers, cops, firefighters and engineers would probably weather the storm fairly well.
But those representing low-paid workers – some of them earning no more than minimum wages – such as janitors, gardeners and home care aides, could take big hits. And it could make organizing child caregivers and other service workers much more difficult.
It could also be a blow to the state Democratic Party, which has become addicted to union money.