Thirteen years ago, California’s teacher union went toe-to-toe with the state’s movie star governor and crushed him at the ballot box, funding almost half of the $121 million campaign that swamped his proposals to revamp tenure and restrict government spending.
The rejection of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2005 initiatives sent a message that tangling with the state’s public employee unions would be a costly and a potentially fruitless fight.
But the next governor might not have to make the same calculation.
Those charges are known as agency fees, and California is one of the states that allow unions to collect them so workers who benefit from union representation don’t get a “free ride.” Critics say they undermine the First Amendment rights of workers who don’t want their money to support causes they oppose.
Union leaders looking at the make-up of the Supreme Court are anticipating a loss, potentially driving down their membership by one third or more.
That begs the question, would Schwarzenegger’s initiatives have passed if the California Teachers Association had $20 million less to throw at them?
Union leaders and politicians from the right and left say it’s too early to tell, but across-the-board they anticipate a gradual resetting of the state’s political landscape if the Supreme Court issues a decision eliminating “fair share” fees.
“By financially crippling the unions through the United State Supreme Court, you eliminate their ability to fight for ballot measures, legislation and other campaigns that further protect working families,” said California Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León, a former organizer for the California Teachers Association.
He stressed that the consequences of defunding unions would ripple out to other priorities for the Democratic Party beyond protecting public workers.
“Without unions, there’s no guaranteed minimum wage of $15 an hour. You remove unions from this equation and the quality of life for ordinary Americans will suffer,” he said.
The case going to the Supreme Court, Janus vs. AFSCME, hinges on an Illinois state worker who does not want to pay fair share fees because he disagrees with the union’s political activities.
“The union’s voice is not my voice. The union’s fight is not my fight,” he wrote in The Chicago Tribune two years ago, criticizing AFSCME’s support for politicians who he believes jeopardized the state’s solvency with reckless spending.
The argument is almost identical to a case the Supreme Court heard in 2016 that targeted the California Teachers’ Association, Friedrichs vs. the CTA. Justice Antonin Scalia’s death that year left the court tied at 4-4 on the case, and allowed unions to continue collecting fair share fees.
Now with Justice Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s appointee, filling Scalia’s seat, union leaders sound resigned about an expected loss while they make plans to grow their membership in a different environment.
“I personally am not frightened. It’s easy to start feeling anxious and negative about all these attacks, but the fights are nothing new,” said CTA President Eric Heins. “I’ve seen what our members and educators are willing to do when they feel their students are threatened, our schools are threatened. We’re going to push on the positive things.”
Unions vs. Schwarzenegger
Unions have a big voice in California politics, from local elections for sheriffs and school boards to the statewide initiatives where voters sort out their preferences on taxes, criminal justice and social issues. They’re often the most-engaged voting bloc in local elections, and they can dominate statewide initiatives.
A Supreme Court ruling against fair share fees “will at least level the playing field,” said Jon Coupal, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association, which advocates for restraints on government spending. “Right now when we go in a legislative battle, because the unions are able to extract union dues without permission, they have an automatic advantage, and that is extremely significant.”
Unions and their allies collectively out-raised Schwarzenegger in 2005, when the former governor and his supporters put up $76 million to limit state spending and make it easier to fire teachers. Unions led by the CTA and other Democratic supporters mustered up a $121 million campaign to defeat Schwarzenegger’s proposals.
Since then, unions have played important roles in persuading voters to support tax increases that staved off deep cuts to services during the recession.
In 2012, for instance, unions helped Gov. Jerry Brown build a $90 million war chest to pass a ballot initiative raising taxes on the wealthy. The initiative passed, even though its opponents outspent it with $98 million, according to campaign finance records.
In 2016, voters extended those tax hikes. The CTA put in $21 million toward the $59 million campaign. It did not face significant opposition.
Union leaders say those campaigns were important both to advocate for the interests of their members and to support the public services that Californians value, from keeping teachers in public schools to fighting fires and conducting background checks on childcare providers.
“Our record on the big fight is good, and the reason is because those fights really are about our values, our middle class, working-class way of life. It’s defending an attack on that. What kind of California do we want to live in?” said Yvonne Walker, president of state government’s largest union, Service Employees International Union Local 1000.
Charter schools and pensions
But unions don’t win all the time. In fact, they get outspent on some key races.
In May, for instance, charter schools and other outside groups propelled an underdog candidate to victory in a record-breaking election at the Los Angeles Unified School District. Charter-supported Nick Melvoin upset union-backed incumbent Steve Zimmer.
Business groups, too, lifted Orinda Democrat Sen. Steve Glazer to victory in 2015 over a union-supported candidate. He has since broken with his party by opposing the gas tax Gov. Brown carried last year and by backing proposals that would curb spending on public employee pensions.
Political strategists from both sides emphasize that unions won’t lose their political power overnight. The state Legislature took steps that bought them some insurance, passing laws that guarantee them access to new public employees and ban their employers from sharing public employee personal contact information with anyone other than unions.
Although union membership probably will decline after the court decision, it might not plummet like the spiral Wisconsin saw after the state banned collective bargaining for most public employees in 2010. California’s Democratic Legislature probably would not take that kind of action, leaving workers an incentive to stick with their labor groups.
“They’re not going to be non-factors. They’re going to be at the negotiating table,” said Russell Lowery, a former chief of staff to the Senate Republican caucus who now is advising local governments on how to bargain with labor groups. “This is an opportunity to solve the problems people have identified, like pensions. Make a better deal,” he said.
If Republican-leaning groups choose to test unions after a court ruling, they’ll probably run campaigns that would open more charter schools and restrict public employee pensions, political strategists say. Those topics let union critics charge that taxpayers are getting less for their money while their local governments spend more resources paying bills to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System.
“In the next four to five years, you’re going to see a number of cities declare bankruptcy. A combination of the pension crisis and the end of union dues could have a major impact on California,” said Kevin Spillane, a Republican consultant who also works with non-union Democrats.
In that scenario, the state’s public employee unions will have to get “creative” in maintaining their membership rolls while pushing back against the groups that would further defund them, de León said.
Heins from CTA and Walker from SEIU 1000 think they’ll have the resources they need for those kinds of ballot-box battles.
“There’s only so much that you can put on working people before they rise up an they say, ‘No more,’” Walker said. “While this will be a moment in time, ultimately because our fight is about values and is about working people, I believe ultimately we win.”