As reported in the Sacramento Bee on Sept. 26 “Teachers union, SEIU open wallets to California Republican Party,” in recent weeks the California Teachers Association donated the California GOP $15,000, the SEIU Local 1000 donated $10,000, and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association donated another $25,000. Representatives of all three of these powerful public sector unions were present at the GOP convention in Anaheim last weekend.
As a proportion of total GOP fundraising in California in 2013, $50,000 is small potatoes. Under the leadership of their new chairman Jim Brulte, the California GOP has raised over $3.0 million so far in 2013, enough to pay off their debts and put them onto viable financial footing. As a proportion of total public sector union political spending in California, $50,000 is even smaller potatoes. Just the CTA, with 325,000 members who on average pay over $1,000 per year in dues – about 30% of which is used for political activities – spends around $100 million per year to influence politics. And nearly all of the money these unions spend is to support Democratic candidates and causes.
When I had the opportunity to speak with Brulte about this, he emphasized that taking these contributions was part of a larger strategy to engage and encourage Republican members of public sector unions. He said:
“There are Republican members in almost every union I’m aware of. A significant percentage of SEIU 1000 are are Republican. 40% of the CTA members are Republicans. For years those Republicans have been trying to get their leadership – most of whom are activist Democrats – to give some of that money to Republicans. I’ve been working with the Republicans in these unions and they have been encouraging their leaders to take some of their dues money and give it to Republican causes.”
Brulte’s argument cannot be easily dismissed. If the CTA membership is 40% registered Republican in a state where only 28% of the electorate is registered Republican, then Republicans surely ought to be talking with CTA members. And it isn’t just CTA members who have a lot of Republicans in their ranks. Reportedly 30% of the SEIU 1000 membership are Republicans. And California’s powerful public safety unions also have a significant percentage of their members, if not an actual majority, who are registered Republicans. It is more than intriguing to reflect upon the apparent fact that more public sector union members are registered Republicans than the electorate at large in California.
But what sort of Republican? Social and fiscal conservatives who nonetheless would have serious reservations about doing anything to reform the unsustainable rates of pay and benefits for public employees? When I asked Brulte whether or not accepting money from public sector unions might help legitimize public sector unions, he was emphatic:
“I don’t validate or invalidate public sector unions. They are legal in California. The proponents of the attempts to change the public sector union dues mechanism have failed three times in the last two decades. I believe there is a different way – and that is to work with the Republican members of every labor union and help empower those Republican union members to put additional pressure on their union leadership to spend Republican dues money on Republican causes.”
Since taking over the state GOP earlier this year, Brulte’s focus has been on rebuilding the organization’s structure, which exited 2012 with over $500,000 of debt, and a party organization that had atrophied. As he put it:
“The Republican party has been trounced three times out of the last three elections in California because it had become a debating society rather than focusing on the nuts and bolts necessary to build an operation to help elect Republican candidates.”
When it comes to public sector union reform, to state that what may work in other states will not work in California is to state the obvious. Public sector unions own California, and they own California’s Democratic party. If you accept Brulte’s premises, his logic is unassailable. And union money going to the California Republican party, which in-turn is allocated to Republican candidates in strategic races, is not quite the same as union money going directly to the candidates. But either way, the more money the unions give, the more influence they will have. How can this play out?
If unions only donate a trickle of money to the California Republican party, at the same time as the California Republican party is aggressively reaching out to union members who are Republican, encouraging them to agitate for representative proportions of union political spending to reach Republicans, an internal struggle could ensue within these unions. It could force them to become more accountable to their members. It could disrupt their ability to pursue an extremist agenda. It could lead not only to shifts in their political priorities, but also force greater transparency and detail in their required public disclosures. It could even reform their internal election processes, resulting in leadership that more accurately represents all the members.
None of this however addresses the intrinsic conflict of interests that make the very existence of public sector unions a threat to democracy, financial sustainability, public education, efficient government, effective social programs, economic growth, and civil liberties. Unlike the public they serve, public sector unions profit from more government jobs, and more compensation for public sector workers – even if the extra spending yields no benefit to society. While pursuing this agenda, their membership operates the machinery of government, with all the potential for abuse that entails. And, of course, public sector unions are funded by taxes, rather than having to earn a profit in a competitive market.
Ultimately what California’s GOP has done further reinforces the necessity of bipartisan public sector union reform. If Democrats know that Republicans have as much to lose as they do by curbing the power of public sector unions, perhaps they will be more inclined to support reforms that unions oppose.