One response to the protests over police treatment of black communities is a proposal by some current and former California district attorneys to prohibit candidates running for prosecutor positions from receiving police unions’ donations and endorsements. 

The Los Angeles Times editorially backed the idea arguing, “These unions’ power to raise and dispense large amounts of campaign cash has warped the electoral process.” 

If such a move is seriously considered, then the proposal doesn’t go far enough. The same principle of unions unduly influencing authorities that oversee their work applies to other relationships between public unions and government officials. If police unions should not give to District Attorney candidates, then teachers unions should not endorse and donate to school board candidates; prison guard unions should not give to state legislators; other public sector unions should not campaign for mayors and city council members who set their salaries and working conditions. 

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin succinctly laid out the reasoning for the California State Bar to remove any conflict of interest of police unions backing prosecutors when he wrote in a statement, “The financial and political support of these unions should not be allowed to influence the decision making.” 

Isn’t that the same roadmap used by teachers’ unions seeking to elect school board members? 

A union can influence the selection of those with whom it negotiates employment contracts. This can color the labor negotiation process, making it appear that generous treatment to a union is granting a return favor. In this way, public sector unions have distorted spending priorities and often make it difficult to implement innovative, cost effective programs. 

The major issue that gets much attention – but little action – is the growing pension pressure on state and local budgets that is squeezing funding for other government responsibilities. 

In labor negotiations, the taxpayers are nominally represented by elected officials. However, many of the officials have received campaign contributions and endorsements from the union representatives across the negotiating table. In this scenario, taxpayers are much less powerful than their numbers would suggest. 

It’s not an unprecedented move to limit or prohibit campaign contributions. A few months ago, the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance to ban contributions of developers to city elected officials while their project application is pending, or for a year after it’s approved. 

But, if this idea of banning endorsements and contributions from police unions (or any public union) is moved forward – there are major obstacles ahead. 

Denying the unions their First Amendment rights of free speech is certainly threatened. In addition, ironically, for unions who complained about the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, usually reported as allowing corporations the right to speak with their dollars, unions would get the same protection. Under Citizens United, unions can take member dues and spend the money on materials in support or in opposition to a candidate for office. As Justice Antonin Scalia noted at the time of the decision, “What individuals have the liberty to do alone, they have a liberty to do together.”

The proposal to limit police unions emerges at an extraordinary moment in our history. Change may finally come because of the civil rights protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd. But recognize that the reform measure dealing with police unions, if it can surmount constitutional questions, has much wider implications for reform.

Originally published at CalMatters