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California Blues
Golden State Grapples With Labor Unions

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.

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  • TommyTwo

    If you ask people if they think the constitution should be changed in order to allow rich speculators to benefit at the expense of retired public servants, who in their old age will be cheated of the hard-earned pensions they’re dependent on, you indeed will not find overwhelming support. If on the other hand you ask people if they’re willing to suffer drastically reduced services, skyrocketing taxes, and reduced pensions of their own… “Framing,” I believe it’s called.

  • foobarista

    It’s hard to imagine, but many people don’t even know that government unions exist. The organizations involved are careful to never describe themselves as “unions”, and if they’re referred to in (their own) ads, they just say “Teachers, firefighters, and nurses all say X is evil or Y is wonderful”.

    Never is it pointed out that the groups doing this are government employee unions.

    It’s a bit more apparent with BART unions in that newspapers actually refer to these groups as “unions” – and when they strike, the monstrous level of benefits for semi-skilled work is covered. In this case, the fact that a reporter makes about half the salary of a BART station attendent is annoying enough for them to cover these facts. The BART strikes, which actually affected the SF bicycle hipster set, made this sort of thing painfully visible for the first time.

  • free_agent

    The crucial question, it seems to me, is whether California drives itself to the point of being uncompetitive in attracting and holding people (and businesses). Will it become a giant West Virginia? But I suppose West Virginia has been uncompetitive for decades and it hasn’t caused any fundamental changes there. And for that matter, a state like Massachusetts can be uncompetitive along many dimensions, and yet hobble along for generations if it is attractive to enough high-paid elite workers. As a destination for mass immigration, it looks like Texas has taken over from California.

    • TommyTwo

      “As a destination for mass immigration, it looks like Texas has taken over from California.”

      Until the “do-gooders” reach critical mass and transform it into yet another utopia. At which point they will leave the mire you’ve described behind and migrate to new pastures.

      Cheerful, ain’t I?

      (Bonus question: Given our shrinking/flattening/accelerating world, can we count on new pastures arising or recovering faster than the existing ones are exploited?)

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