California’s public employee unions gained real power in 1978 with passage of the Ralph Dills Act, which granted state employees and teachers a right to collective bargaining. Three decades later California struggles under the mountainous burden of the costs that decision generated.

The roots of that entitlement goes back to the 1974 elections, when Jerry Brown was first elected governor and a large number of union-friendly candidates won seats in the California Legislature.

Most of the elected officials who voted for that benefit are long gone and forgotten, never to be held accountable … except one, the quirky Brown who, as governor, signed the law authorizing collective bargaining.

Perhaps most surprising is how little it cost public employee unions to elect people who would vote their way. In 1974 Brown received about $40,000 from the two leading public employee unions. To elect friendly legislators the two unions contributed as little as $3,500 to some, around $10,000 to others.

So it is ironic, and perhaps justice, that Brown returned as California governor two years ago.  Today Brown has the primary responsibility of addressing the fiscal problems he helped create in the 1970s.

This came to mind recently when I came across a column analyzing the results of the 1974 election, which I had covered as a Sacramento Union reporter.  Two weeks after the election I wrote:

Among the biggest winners in this month’s California elections were labor groups, both old-line organized and recognized AFL-CIO unions, and the newer public employee groups. The latter emerged as the biggest election spenders and are rapidly becoming full-fledged unions in their own right. They spent heavily, worked hard, and won handily in this year’s elections, from the governor’s chair on down through the Legislature. When the results of the balloting are compared to the support from labor groups it becomes very clear that California government at all levels will be oriented toward the wishes of organized labor and organizing labor groups. … 1974 clearly was the year for labor in California politics. The coming years should reap sweet benefits for labor.

I noted that the union victories came at a remarkably small cost to them.

The Association for Better Citizenship (ABC), for example, political arm of the California Teachers Association, pumped $25,000 into Brown’s campaign in recent weeks. The California State Employees Association (CSEA), added another $14,650.

In the Legislature, labor groups did equally well. Most of the non-incumbent candidates they backed won, usually replacing office holders who were not friendly or were just barely hospitable to labor.

ABC gave $4,000 or more to 10 candidates running for open seats or challenging incumbent legislators.  Eight won, all Democrats led by three new senators, John Dunlap, Jerry Smith and Robert Presley. Each got $10,000 from the group trying to make life better for teachers.

CSEA did nearly as well.  Of the 10 non-incumbent candidates who received more than $3,500 from state employees, eight won.

Those small sums did the job in 1974. The Legislature and Brown enacted the Ralph Dills Act, sought by employee unions. The law gave state workers the power to organize.

Today public employee unions, notably teacher and state employee unions, have a virtual lock on the Legislature, able to drive their agenda. They enhance their State Capitol successes with periodic ballot propositions that enhance their strength and increase funding for their agendas.

Once they achieved collective bargaining and related powers, public employee union spending soared. In the decade through 2010, campaign and lobbying expenditures by California’s public employee unions exceeded $300 million, according to the Fair Political Practices Commission. Clearly the unions’ modest expenditures and subsequent victories in the 1970s set the stage for them to vastly expand their power.

A sad reality of politics is that the elected officials (legislative and executive) who cause a problem rarely have to deal with the adverse results, mostly because they are no longer in office.  All the legislators who helped the unions after the 1974 election are long gone, and their enabling role is largely forgotten.

Today the cost to California taxpayers has ballooned into billions as the state irresponsibly underfunded the benefits sought by the public employee unions and provided by the Legislature and governors.

So it is ironic that Brown’s reincarnation as governor in 2010 returned to face the music for what he began during his first stint as governor. Brown is one of the few enablers from the 1974 election who actually has to face the results of his decisions nearly 40 years ago.

Brown’s minimal reform this year does little to solve the state’s fiscal problems, generated only by his need to show voters some suggestion of reform as he asks for a $6-billion tax increase this November.

Brown gained the governor’s office in 1974 with the help of $40,000 in union campaign contributions. He continues to have their support today.  What a great deal for the unions and the governor. But what a lousy deal for California taxpayers.