Three Bites at the Apple: Public Sector Unions in California

Daniel DiSalvo
Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow & Assistant Professor, City College of New York

Observers have long noted that public employee unions get two big bites at the policy apple. First, they can try to secure better pay, benefits, and working conditions for their members through collective bargaining.  If that isn’t enough, they can turn to the political sphere and try to exercise influence through electioneering and lobbying. In contrast, private sector unions win most things for their members through collective bargaining and other interest groups must rely exclusively on influencing politicians.

In California, however, public sector unions have yet another way to advance their interests: the Golden State’s robust direct democracy process.

A recent study I conducted on the role of California’ public employee unions in the initiative process found that over the last thirty years public-sector unions have taken a position on 40 percent of the 178 total ballot initiatives. Voters ratified nearly half the measures the unions backed, while 75 percent of the measures that the unions opposed were defeated. In other words, on “offense” the unions are batting .500 and on “defense” they are extraordinarily hard to score against. Like their lopsided campaign spending, the report found that the unions almost always backed liberal initiatives and opposed conservative ones.

The campaigns this fall for Proposition 30 (a tax hike) and Proposition 32 (paycheck protection) are indicative of the outsize influence the unions wield in the initiative process. Others groups, such as business, occasionally enter the fray but the sums spent on measures they favor or oppose tend to be much small and the competition more intense. In contrast, the unions often overawe their opponents, outspending and out mobilizing them by huge margins.

Ultimately, when one bores down on the fifteen most important measures to California’s public employees unions over the last decade, one finds that they almost always win. That is a record no other interest group can match. This suggests that Prop. 32 faces a steep uphill battle and the vote on Prop. 30 is likely to be very close.

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