Voters in California have a sense of the strain public employee unions are putting on state and local finances, but it’s not clear they know what to do or who to blame. Two polls in the last week shed some light on the questions with which Californians are currently wrestling.The Associated Press reported Friday that the independent Field Poll found more voters in the deep blue state that think unions are doing harm than those who think they’re doing good, a reversal from the 2011 poll:
In many communities “public pensions are starting to crowd out the services that local governments can provide. That doesn’t sit well with the public,” pollster Mark DiCamillo said.Compared to the earlier poll, unions lost ground across most age, political and demographic groups.Since 2011 “virtually every voter subgroup now displays a shift toward a somewhat more negative view of labor unions than they had expressed previously,” the survey said.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise: unaffordable public pensions played a large role in California’s three recent bankruptcies in Stockton, Vallejo and San Bernardino. Government employee retirement benefits take such a large slice of many municipal revenue pies that even some upper class wine country communities haven’t the money for basic road repairs. No doubt some of the frustration with labor unions also comes from Bay Area commuters for whom periodic transit strikes are like fog: simply a part of life in the Bay.But a poll from the (admittedly left-leaning) Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group tells a slightly different story. It showed that only 36 percent of those polled were supportive of democratic San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed’s effort to reform the state constitution to allow local governments to revise pension plans. (Currently, under California law, they cannot.) The poll was commissioned by the union-friendly Californians for Retirement Security, but the results shouldn’t be ignored: we wouldn’t be surprised if California voters were less than eager to punish government employees for the poor leadership and decision-making of politicians and union leaders. It’s possible, and very understandable, to acknowledge the harm some labor unions are doing to California without wanting to make their members pay for it.Keep an eye out for Mayor Reed’s fight to make sure his ballot initiative sees the light of day. He faces a formidable opponent in some of the country’s most powerful and well-resourced unions, but a win here might be just the sort of reform California desperately needs to begin reinventing itself.