California not immune to union reform 

If a real union reform battle can take place in Wisconsin and spread to other liberal rust-belt, union-dominated states, then it could perhaps happen in California — although it might take some time given the political dynamic here and the Golden State’s “follows its own drummer” ethic.

Wisconsin, and Madison in particular, is a surprisingly liberal place, with a progressive tradition that echoes California’s past. California’s progressive history led to this state’s wide use of the initiative, recall and referendum — forms of direct democracy designed to counter the power of special interests. Unlike Wisconsin’s voters, Californians aren’t about to put conservative Republicans in power any time soon, but our state’s voters have a strong conservative tilt when it comes to deciding initiatives.

Ironically, the liberal elements that have dominated Wisconsin and California politics have now become the powerful ruling elite, with political muscle and special protections rivaled by the railroad barons who spurred the old-time progressives. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s approach is resonating with voters who see the unfairness of a system in which public “servants” enjoy compensation packages and protections far beyond what private-sector workers receive.

I still chuckle at the tilt of the callers who questioned me during an interview on a public radio station last year in Madison. It’s the angriest response I’ve received — far more so than the polite and occasionally agreeable calls I received while debating the public employee issue on public radio in San Francisco. I recall that interview because at the time I wrote that state off as hopeless. I was wrong. Running out of money really focuses the mind, even the minds of government officials. Wisconsin Republicans — despite their politically savvy but disappointing choice to exempt police and firefighters from their reforms — understand that the real long-term problem is the collective-bargaining process. Sure, the unions have agreed to contribution increases to bolster their struggling pension funds, but they know such increases can always be made up at the bargaining table once the storm blows over and the economy starts humming again.

Collective bargaining — the ability of unions to bargain on behalf of entire groups of workers — is a nightmare in the public sector. Essentially, unions get to elect their own bosses. Public employees already enjoy strong civil service protections. The whole idea of the civil service system, designed to fight politicization and cronyism in the bureaucracy, is that the employee has an ownership right in the job. Throw union protections on top of that and the taxpayer doesn’t have a chance.

Collective bargaining makes it impossible for governments to consider privatization and other cost-saving reforms because unions will never assent to that in the negotiating process. Collective bargaining allows unions to implement nonsensical and counterproductive work rules that harm efficiency and customer service. Unions protect even the worst actors among their ranks.

In California, different reform factions support different approaches. Everyone agrees, though, that reform here must come through that progressive tradition of the initiative process. One initiative proposal would significantly reduce pension benefits. Another one advocates paycheck protection, limiting the ability of unions to directly take money from members’ paychecks for political activity. There’s even talk of an initiative that would end collective bargaining.

Again, if it can happen in progressive Wisconsin, it can happen in progressive California. As the money runs out, the question is when.

Steven Greenhut is editor of; write to him at

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