No More Government Unions?

Few states have been as profoundly shaped by their public-sector unions as California. Government labor groups there elect their own bosses and number among the biggest spenders on ballot campaigns to raise taxes and expand government. They have engineered some of the richest retirement benefits in the public sector—at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars in public debt.

But one California businessman thinks that he can change all that. Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper has filed a petition with the California attorney general’s office for a ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution to outlaw public-sector unions. “Public employment costs have exploded, including taxpayer-funded pensions and lifetime health benefits not enjoyed by employees in the private sector,” the petition reads. “Worse yet, some public employee unions have used their money and power to protect bad employees engaged in unspeakable misconduct and others who have completely failed at their jobs.”

Draper faces a strenuous uphill battle. He must collect close to 1 million signatures to qualify an amendment to the state constitution for the ballot—a path likely to be made more difficult by union-friendly election officials, who will throw obstacles in his way. If he succeeds, he’ll then face an election against the most well-heeled opponents: Golden State public-sector unions spend hundreds of millions of dollars every election cycle, and they’ll empty their coffers to defeat him.

Still, the politics of California are undergoing upheaval, as increasingly disgruntled voters consider recalling Governor Gavin Newsom, even as his closest allies, the public-sector unions, pour in money to help him stay in office. A recall of Newsom in the special election on September 14 would panic government union leaders and dramatically improve Draper’s odds of success.

Draper has long been critical of the direction of politics in his state. He made several attempts to put a question on the ballot to split California into several states in order to decentralize power and break the hold of special interests. That quixotic effort fell short in 2013, when he failed to collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. But in 2018, he gathered enough names for a proposal to carve California up into three states. Though opponents derided the idea as “wacky,” they raised $10 million to ensure its defeat. Meantime, Draper committed more than $2 million of his own money to get the initiative on the ballot, only to have the state supreme court order it removed. “Apparently, the insiders are in cahoots and the establishment doesn’t want to find out how many people don’t like the way California is being governed,” Draper said then. “They are afraid to know the answer as to whether we need a fresh start here in California.”

Draper seems ready to undertake a massive effort against the state’s public-sector unions. A founding partner of the venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, he’s made his money by investing in the likes of Skype and Tesla and has a net worth estimated by Forbes at $1.5 billion. He’s passionate about what he calls the decline of California and the role of public unions in the state’s politics. “Union bosses have run our state in the shadows for about 50 years. They punish candidates who don’t do their bidding for them. There is even evidence that they manipulate the courts,” he wrote in a recent article. “Union bosses have taken California schools from the top to the bottom, they have made it so that there are fewer jobs, more homeless, and people are fleeing the state to work. They have brought California quality of life from 1st to 50th.”

Unions have plenty of allies in state government in their efforts to thwart Draper. In 2012, for instance, Chuck Reed, a reform-minded Democratic mayor of San Jose, gathered enough signatures to place a referendum on the state ballot to allow adjustments to public-sector pensions and retiree health benefits. But then-Attorney General Kamala Harris, tasked with the job of writing a description of the initiative for voters, titled it misleadingly as a proposal that “Reduces pensions for public employees” and added several descriptions that mischaracterized the act. The Modesto Bee editorialized that her representation “read like talking points taken straight from a public employee union boss’ campaign handbook.” Disheartened, supporters withdrew the initiative.

More recently, the unions’ allies in state government have stepped in to protect them from membership losses in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus v. AFSCME that government workers cannot be compelled to remain in a union. In response, state government entities have given unions the power to determine when and how members can resign their membership, and labor leaders have thrown up numerous obstacles. A recent class-action lawsuit by a University of California employee, filed with the help of the National Right to Work Foundation, charges that the school allows the University Professional and Technical Employees union to impose unreasonable conditions on employees looking to leave the group, including requirements that the union creates without informing employees when they file to resign.

Despite all these obstacles, Californians may be ready for dramatic change. Led by unions, Newsom supporters have poured $68.4 million into keeping him in office, compared with just $9.5 million being spent by opponents. Among Newsom’s biggest backers are the California Teachers Association, which has contributed $1.8 million, the state’s prison guard union ($1.75 million), and several locals of the Service Employees International union, which have collectively given $4 million. Even so, polls show nearly half of voters saying that they’ll vote for recall.

When voters are angry, all the union money in the world may not be enough. Just how angry are California voters? We’ll find out soon.

Steven Malanga is the senior editor of City Journal and the George M. Yeager Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

This article was originally published by City Journal Online.


  1. Extremely ANGRY. I too pray that ‘evil’ will be SHAMED!

  2. James Rogers says

    What California must do, as all 50 states must do, is review the 1976 Civil Service Reform Act which changed the legal requirements associated with public service unions at the federal level. Basically, it eliminated the capability of public service unions to strike for more pay and benefits that private labor unions can do. The reason is simple: public service employee unions are paid with TAXPAYER DOLLARS. So, the pay and benefits for public service employees at the federal level are set by law. These unions members can express their concerns about working conditions and such, but they cannot strike. The same changes must go to all public service employee unions at the state level. Else, you get what has been happening in California: elected officials determining pay and benefits for public service employees without the bill payer (ie, the taxpayer) having a seat at the negotiating table. About 75% OF The almost $2 TRILLION of long-term debt that this state has IS ATTRIBUTABLE TO THE EXCEEDINGLY GENEROUS PUBLIC SERVICE EMPLOYEE RETIREMENT BENEFITS INCLUDING LIFETIME MEDICAL. The only way that this state can eliminate this $2 TRILLION debt is to either raise taxes, cut benefits, or both. I see no indication that this state will do anything to curtail this debt.

  3. Concerned Citizen says

    Bravo Tim Draper! Where do I sign? Government and Unions are an unholy alliance!

    It doesn’t matter what sector the unions are involved with, destructions ensues. Our schools systems are just one of many examples. They bankrupt businesses, cities, counties and states with their onerous demands. Look at the unfunded liabilities for pensions. CalPERS is a perfect example. As pensions break the bank, Californians face more tax hikes. The highest annual pension paid in 2019 by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) went to one of the managers of the pension fund itself. And yet, government continues to kowtow to the union demands and break the bank.

    ‘Curtis Ishii announced his retirement in 2018 from his position as managing investment director for global fixed income. Last year, he collected a pension of $418,608, almost $50,000 more than the $372,280 pulled down by the previous title-holder, former Solano County administrator Michael Thomas.
    Unions had their day and served their purpose, b but it is time to end it.’ (The OCR, 2/24/20)

    It used to be that government workers were civil servants, emphasis on servant. It was a steady job, difficult to get fired from, with a decent wage. However, it did not exceed wages and salaries in the private sector. Today that is just not the case. Now we have civil servants making outrageous wages, and for what? We have a government system that is corrupt, overburdened, inefficient and ineffective.

    And if that isn’t bad enough, the unions use the money they collect from their members and pedal it for influence and favor in elections, continuing the cycle to feed the beast and get what “they” want…more power. Often the millions spent on elections is not even representative of their members. The members are just a means to and end, providing a slush fund for the criminals that are the union hierarchy.

    There was time when unions were beneficial, but no more. New tech, social media, the 24 hour news cycle and cancel culture can and do more to alert the populace to bad actors and deal with them, whether at the helm of a business or an individual just starting out. It is time to put an end to unions, take away their gold chain and rings, take away their fancy cars and strip them of their power; stop the dues and vacation fees that are bilked from members and businesses alike and put that money back in peoples pockets instead of the politicians!

    • Daniel Wright says

      There are enraged parents all across America demanding that school boards stop teaching CRT and the 1619 project. Communists and globalists have now gone too far. My solution is for awakened parents to take over their local school boards. Then,when the time is right and most boards are under the control of SANE people,simply refuse to renew any school union contract. They must be prepared with lists of fully vetted,patriotic teachers willing to teach kids the old fashioned way with the three Rs,history, Geography ETC. without a union contract. Good wages and benefits don’t have to be tied to a union.

  4. If Government unions are not a conflict of interest then there is no such thing as a conflict of interest. Upton Sinclair said ” It is difficult to get a man to understand something , when his salary depends on his not understanding it “.

  5. This one hits on a raw nerve for a lot of us. No reform in in this Country will ever be successful until government unions are abolished. All of us outside of these unions know all of the reasons why, and no one in a union (with exceptions, of course) will ever accede to the logic or rationality of disbanding these unions – not so long as they control the government, the contributions, the money, and so on ….

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