A recent editorial cartoon sums up the tension between average taxpayers and government employee unions. It shows two guys sitting at a bar. One, head in hand and looking glum, is labeled “public sector” and he says to his companion, “They’re trying to cut our pensions.” The other fellow, labeled “private sector,” replies, “What’s a pension?”
If this bar is in California, where the official unemployment rate is 12.5 percent not including those who have completely given up looking for work, Mr. Private Sector might also ask, “What’s a job?”
Over time, how much of the public views those who work for government has changed from “respected civil servants” to “militant special interest” dedicated to preserving and expanding their “entitlements” at any cost to taxpayers. In this case, perception is reality.
This change has taken place in large measure since, Jerry “The Enabler” Brown, in a previous incarnation as governor, signed legislation granting government workers collective bargaining rights. The result has been that the public employee unions have been so eminently successful that California now has the highest paid government workers in all 50 states.
And the government employee unions have invested their power in a way that makes them the most powerful political force in the state. Here’s how it works. The state extracts dues from the paychecks of workers and turns the money over to the unions. Union bosses then invest this cash, amounting to tens of millions of dollars, in the election campaigns of favored candidates — mostly Democrats — for the legislature and statewide office.
When it comes time to negotiate a new employment contract, the interests of government workers are represented on both sides of the table because the politicians, who owe their careers to the unions, are anxious to please by agreeing to generous raises along with lavish pensions and benefits. For those in the private sector, this would be the equivalent of being able to hire your own boss before you ask for more pay.
As a result, most of the members of legislature — who should be looking out for the taxpayers’ interests — have become a wholly owned subsidiary of the unions. If the economy sputters, reducing tax revenue and limiting government’s ability to maintain the high-life for employees, these lawmakers look to extract more from already struggling taxpayers. Tax increases guarantee money continues to flow to the unions and back to the campaign treasuries of the agreeable politicians. Howard Jarvis called this part of the “tax, tax, tax, spend, spend, spend, elect, elect, elect” cycle that works to the detriment of taxpayers.
Those who complain are accused of being anti-union by those who benefit from this system of insider dealing. They try to hide behind the more positive image of private sector unions that negotiate with private business at arm’s length until there is a mutually satisfactory agreement. But the two types of unions have about as much in common as the mobster who sells you “protection” and your insurance agent.
However, there is a glimmer of hope. Efforts are under way to insert genuine taxpayers’ representatives into the process of bargaining with the government employee union bosses as well as the union acolytes in the legislature.
State Sen. Tony Strickland and freshman Assemblyman Don Wagner have formed the Taxpayers Caucus in the legislature dedicated to limiting taxes in our already high-tax state and protecting Proposition 13, with the goal of creating a united front on critical taxpayer issues. The caucus is open to all comers, but so far all of the 30 lawmakers who have joined are Republicans. That Democrats are not rushing to join is not surprising, considering the position on taxation of their union sponsors. However, the dozen Republicans who have not joined up are giving taxpayers pause. They are not only falling under suspicion from the voters who elected them, they are missing an outstanding opportunity to brand their party with a position on which the majority of Californians agree: Taxes are plenty high already and taxpayers don’t want to be made poorer so government workers can live much better than they do.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.