A Post-Janus Agenda for California’s Public Sector Unions

School education“If you do not prevail in this case, the unions will have less political influence; yes or no?” Kennedy asked. “Yes, they will have less political influence,” Frederick answered.
–  an excerpt from the Janus vs. AFSCME trial, quoted in the Washington Post, February 26, 2018

This past week the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the Janus vs. AFSCME case. Mark Janus, a public employee in Illinois, is challenging the right of unions to charge “fair share” fees, because he disagrees with the political agenda which he claims his fees help pay for.

What if government unions were accountable to their members? What if the politics of these unions mirrored the politics of the members? Would Mark Janus still want out?

It’s already possible for public employees to “opt-out” of paying that portion of their dues that fund explicitly political activity, although in practice the unions typically make that opt-out process very difficult. But Mark Janus is arguing that all dues paid to public sector unions are political, because the consequences of collective bargaining in the public sector impact taxes, government debt, budgets and spending priorities. He is arguing that the agenda of public sector unions, including collective bargaining, is inherently political.

In reality, saying all public sector union activity is inherently political is itself an understatement. In California, public sector unions spend about $300 million per year on explicitly political activity – funding political campaigns, political action committees, and lobbyists. But they spend at least another $700 million every year not just on collective bargaining – which for government workers is inherently political – but on education campaigns that attempt to influence voters on countless political topics.

Equally important is the influence California’s public sector unions wield that doesn’t derive its power from how much money they can spend, but from the fact that elected officials come and go, but the union hierarchy is permanent. Public employees who want to advance in their careers do not cross these unions.

Government unions are so powerful that only a very aggressive outcome in the Janus ruling will suffice to significantly undermine their power in California. The court must rule that union membership must be renewed annually via a transparent opt-in process. Only then will these unions become accountable to their members.

If there is an aggressive ruling in the Janus case that truly forces public sector unions to become accountable, imagine how it may affect the political agenda of these unions. One may hope it would ignite a civil war within these unions. Even in California, for example, about 40% of public school teachers identify as conservatives. Among public safety employees, a majority identify as conservative. Yet these unions are the power behind a state legislature ran by the most liberal politicians in the history of the United States.

Just for a moment, consider what these unions could do, if their leadership was committed to making California a land of opportunity again:

(if they actually cared about ALL of California’s working families)

1 – Restore the balance in California’s colleges and universities so that the ratio of faculty to administrators is 2 to 1, instead the current ratio wherein administrators often outnumber teachers.

2 – End all discrimination and base college admissions purely on merit. Expand STEM curricula so it represents 50% of college majors instead of the current 20%.

3 – Enforce the Vergara reforms so it is easier to retain quality public school teachers and easier to fire the incompetent ones. Eliminate barriers to charter schools.

4 – Restructure the penal system to make it easier for prisoners to perform useful public services. For example. along with working the fire lines during fire season, they could work all year clearing dead trees out of California’s forests. Use high-tech monitoring devices to reduce costs. Reserve current prisons only for the truly incorrigible.

5 – Scrap the High-Speed Rail project and instead use the proceeds to add one lane to every major interstate highway in California.

6 – Use additional High-Speed Rail funds to complete plant upgrades so that 100% of California’s sewage is reused, even treated to potable quality.

7 – Pass legislation to streamline approval of the proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach, and fast-track applications for additional desalination plants, especially in the Los Angeles basin.

8 – Spend the entire proceeds of the $7 billion water bond, passed overwhelmingly by Californians in 2014, on storage. Build the Los Banos Grandes, Sites and Temperance Flat reservoirs, adding over 5 million acre feet of storage to the California Water Project. Pass aggressive legislation and fund aggressive legal actions and counter-actions, to lower costs and enable completion of these projects in under five years.

9 – Permit slant drilling to access 12 trillion cubic feet of natural gas deposits from land-based rigs along the Southern California coast. Build an LNG terminal off the coast in Ventura County to export California’s natural gas to foreign markets. Permit development of the Monterey Shale formation to extract oil and gas.

10 – Permit construction of “generation 3+” nuclear power plants in geologically stable areas of California’s interior. Permit construction of new natural gas power plants.

11 – Repeal AB32 and SB375 and make it easy for developers to build homes on the suburban and exurban fringes, instead of just “in-fill” that destroys existing neighborhoods.

12 – Require California’s public employee pension funds to invest a minimum of 10% of their assets in infrastructure projects as noted above. They could issue fixed rate bonds or take equity positions in the revenue producing projects, or a combination of both. This would immediately unlock approximately $80 billion in construction financing to rebuild California’s infrastructure. At the same time, save the pension systems by striking down the “California Rule” that prevents meaningful pension reform.

These reforms would lower the cost of living in California, at the same time as they would create resource abundance and hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs.

It is encouraging to think that the Janus ruling will reduce the political influence of public sector unions. But another possibility is equally tantalizing, that Janus will force unions to become accountable to their members. This, in turn, could be reflected in these unions fighting, for a change, to help all Californians.

To expect public sector unions to pursue the agenda outlined above is fanciful. But if California’s public sector unions were as committed to that pro-growth agenda as they are to their current agenda which is bankrupting California’s cities and counties at the same time as it obsesses over race, gender, and environmentalist extremism, they could probably get all of it done. And no other special interest could do this.

Only California’s public sector unions have enough power to successfully take on their current allies; the environmentalist lobby, the trial lawyers, and their puppet masters, the leftist oligarchy. No other special interest could take on these profiteers who have gotten filthy rich spouting leftist tripe, while they impoverished a generation of Californians.

Post Janus, it is time for a civil war within public sector unions. Using, hopefully, their option to not opt-in, it is time for public servants who care about ordinary Californians to make their voices heard.

Edward Ring is an analyst with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2010. He is a prolific writer on the topics of political reform and sustainable economic development, and has been interviewed, published or quoted by the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the Economist,  Die Zeit, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, and other media outlets.