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Ed Ring

Government Employee Unions – The Root Cause of California’s Challenges

Spokespersons for California’s government employee unions perpetuate a myth of staggering absurdity and tragic consequences – that they are protecting working Californians from wealthy corporations and wealthy individuals.

The reality is that government employee unions are focused on one thing: Expanding government employee pay, benefits and privileges. This requires expanding government, and that priority comes in front of everything else, including the cost to society at large. Expansive environmentalist regulations have made prices in California for housing and utilities the highest in the nation. Expansive compensation packages for unionized government workers have resulted in chronic deficits and accumulating state and local government debt that by some measures already exceeds $1.0 trillion. Expansive taxes and regulation have made California consistently rank as the most inhospitable place in the nation to run a small business.

Exactly how does any of this protect the poor from the wealthy?

It doesn’t, of course. But the deeper story is how government employee unions are not only failing to “protect” California’s aspiring multitudes, but are in fact enabling the wealthy special interests they claim to protect us from. The most entrenched and massive corporate entities are not harmed by excessive regulations, because they can afford to comply. An obvious example would be California’s impending $13 per hour minimum wage. Large corporate entities like MacDonalds will simply automate a few positions, tinker with the menu and recipes, incrementally raise prices, and go forward. Large corporations can hire attorneys and lobbyists, they have access to capital, and when the smaller players go out of business they gain market share. They benefit from over-regulation, but the consumer suffers.

Less obvious is how the financial sector also benefits from an overbuilt, financially irresponsible, unionized government. When excessive rates of pay and benefits consume government budgets, financial institutions step up to extend debt. Bond underwriters collect billions each year in fees in California to issue new debt and refinance existing debt. When excessively generous pension plans are granted to unionized government employees, pension funds pour hundreds of billions into Wall Street investment firms, earning additional billions in fees. As for “carbon emissions auctions,” now in its third year of implementation in California, as that ramps up, virtually every BTU of fossil fuel energy consumed will put a commission into the hands of a financial intermediary. Trillions are on the table.

Unionized government hides behind environmentalism to justify pay and benefits over investment in infrastructure – which after all is environmentally incorrect. As the cost-of-living inevitably rises through artificial constraints on the supply of land and energy, the unionized government workers negotiate even higher pay and benefits to compensate, and the corporate monopolies that control existing supplies of land and energy get more revenue and profit. And of course the resultant asset bubble is healthy both for pension funds and wealthy investors, even as low and middle class private sector workers are priced out of owning homes – or even automobiles – and struggle to make ends meet.

The power of public employee unions starts with the fact they collect and spend more money than any other special interest. In California they collect well over $1.0 billion per year in dues and fees. About one-third of that money is reported as explicitly political spending – that’s over $600 million per two-year election cycle. The rest of it is still spent indirectly on politics, since all of their negotiating and public education campaigns concern how we manage our public institutions. The portion of this billion per year that goes to entirely nonpolitical activity is negligible.

With the best academic studies, political consultants, public relations firms, and lobbyists that money can buy, with political action committees that extend down to the most obscure local elections, government employee unions make or break candidates at every level in California.

It is crucial to perceive the irony. Government unions empower the worst elements of the capitalist system they persistently demonize. The crony capitalists and speculative financial interests benefit from an overbuilt, over-regulating, state and local government populated with overpaid unionized workers. Those virtuous capitalists who want to compete without subsidies are successfully lumped together with these robber barons, discrediting their support for reform. Those small business owners who want to grow their enterprises are harassed and marginalized.

If government employee unions were illegal, the most powerful political force in California would cease to exist. But it wouldn’t “turn California over to the corporations and billionaires.” Quite the opposite. It would take away the ability of those corporations and billionaires to collude with local and state government unions who currently control the lawmakers. It would force them instead to compete with each other, lowering the cost of living for everyone. It would restore balance to our debate over environmental policy, energy policy, and infrastructure investment.

Government unions have taken over California. Their agenda is inherently in conflict with the public interest, their rhetoric is compelling and formidable and utterly deceptive, their financial power is immense. They are turning California into a feudal state, where the anointed and compliant corporations build monopolies, government workers lead privileged lives, the rich get richer, the middle class diminishes, and the poor become dependent on government. Nobody who is serious about reversing California’s decline – or America’s potential decline – can ignore the fundamental enabling role unionized government is playing in its demise.

*   *   *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center

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