As reported by investigative journalist John Hrabe, conservative gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly has accepted money from public safety unions. It’s not the first time – as cited in Hrabe’s reports, Donnelly has accepted money from public safety unions in past campaigns. His past candidacies have also benefit from independent expenditure campaigns funded by public sector unions. To not report Donnelly’s actions here would be negligent. But Donnelly’s not alone.
An assembly candidate from Orange County, conservative Keith Curry, recently lost the endorsement of the conservative Orange County Lincoln Club for accepting a donation from the Orange County Firefighters Union. Apart from the Orange County Lincoln Club’s dramatic decision to hold Curry accountable, none of this is news. While public sector unions virtually control the Democratic party in California through campaign contributions and lobbying, public safety unions spread their money around to candidates from both parties.
The consequences of allowing labor unions to take over California’s cities and counties through political spending that dwarfs every other special interest should be obvious by now. Public sector unions are the brokers and enablers of other special interests – corporate, financial and environmentalist. In all cases, these special interests have an agenda to squelch competition and secure government favors. Public sector union power makes or breaks any candidate or policy agenda from any other source. The other special interests get the message, and play ball. The results are higher prices for consumers, higher costs on small businesses, and higher taxes for everyone. Meanwhile, large corporations and financial interests profit, and public sector union members get increased pay and benefits that effectively exempt them from these harmful effects.
Such abstractions are largely irrelevant to politicians who need money to run their campaigns. They know that rank and file conservatives love public safety employees because they do tough work, fighting crime and catastrophe, facing danger every day, serving and protecting the public. Of this, one can say without irony, what’s not to like? But public safety unions take advantage of the sentiments of loyalty and respect their members have earned from the public, and have used it to elevate their pay to unaffordable heights. Libertarians, of course, can also be manipulated by public safety unions. After all, who cares if nearly 100% of a city’s budget is for police and fire services, if those are the only “legitimate” services a local government ought to provide? But should a double standard apply? Should most public sector unions be opposed, while public safety unions get a pass?
The challenge for conservatives is two-fold. First, whatever money they don’t accept from public safety unions they will have to replace through contributions from somewhere else. But there is nothing available to them that comes anywhere close to the torrent of money that perennially flows from the pockets of taxpayers into the payroll departments of government agencies and then automatically transfers into the coffers of public sector unions. In California over $1.0 billion per year is collected by public sector unions – one third used explicitly for politics, two-thirds utilized for an inherently political agenda, negotiating how we manage our public institutions and compensate our public workers. Public sector unions play in every political contest because they can, and because every election, no matter how insignificant, directly affects their interests. Nobody else even comes close.
The other challenge for conservatives is equally daunting. How do you make the entirely legitimate but woefully awkward argument that you support public safety, even though you oppose public safety unions? How do you express your appreciation for the risks and sacrifices made by public safety employees, at the same time as you argue that their pay and benefits have grown to levels we can’t afford, and in many cases are inequitably high?
One way to make this argument – along with simply stating the above points – is to remind members of public safety that even without collective bargaining and unions, they will still have significant political influence. Totally voluntary associations of public safety employees can still collect dues and donations, voluntarily, from members, and they can still engage in political spending. But without collective bargaining, at least the politicians they help elect would not be bound by the strait-jackets of labor agreements that are wreaking financial havoc on nearly every city and county in California.
There remains the larger, more abstract but very compelling argument that Donnelly, Curry, Brulte, and every other conservative in California who engages with unions ought to articulate. Unions, especially public sector unions, negotiate over-market compensation at tremendous cost to everyone else. And the intrinsic agenda of public sector unions, bigger government, is compatible with the agenda of crony capitalists, financial opportunists, and environmentalist extremists with their army of plaintiff attorneys, but this agenda hurts everyone else.
There is another, higher path, which is to dissolve public sector unions altogether, so that government workers and private workers share the same fate. This will facilitate grassroots political activism undistorted by government union agenda. Activism that will force corporations to compete, force governments to live within their means, inspire debate over government entitlements that are financially sustainable and earned according to the same formulas by all workers, increase opportunities for small businesses, and lower the cost of living for everyone.
Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center