As our chapters on interest groups and bureaucracy point out, public-sector unions have gained influence over the years. They are especially powerful in California. Democrat Gloria Romero, formerly majority leader in the state senate, writes in UT San Diego:
Money flows to those who control the levers of power, and in California that means Democrats who have long been allied with, and funded by, public-sector unions. One does not make the decision to “cross” powerful interests lightly, for recrimination is swift. Usually done behind closed doors, one threat was actually televised when, during a budget hearing, a representative of the Service Employees International Union — one of California’s largest public-employee unions — brazenly told legislators “we helped to get you into office, and we got a good memory. Come November, if you don’t back our program, we’ll get you out of office.” Remarkably, not one legislator contested the threat delivered in “the people’s house.”
The most influential public-sector union is the California Teachers Association, which has mastered the politics of how to elect the very politicians who subsequently do their bidding. With approximately 325,000 members — each paying some $1,000 a year in dues — it commands the most powerful war chest in California, raising over $300 million annually to finance its operations. From 2000-2010, CTA spent over $210 million on political campaigning — more than any other donor in the state, outspending the pharmaceutical, oil and tobacco industries combined.
Its political war chest is legendary, allowing it to dominate elections, including school-board races in which turnout is often less than 10 percent. Political consultants fear crossing them because of the potential to be “blacklisted” in the future. Almost half the California budget funds education, thanks to Proposition 98, a 1988 initiative crafted by CTA. Democratic legislators fear interfering with it even though few understand how the formula functions.
Former Senate President Don Perata, D-Oakland, was one of the few to challenge it, comparing it to a “runaway escalator” in need of reform. In retribution, CTA ran ads against him. They were not interested in “taking him out”; rather, the message was more akin to sending dead fish to fellow Caucus members so they would have to choose loyalty: their own president or CTA. In a subsequent interview, Sen. Perata referenced CTA’s arrogant belief that it was the “fourth coequal branch of government.”
Former CTA staffers are ensconced in legislative leadership offices. Legislation benefiting their membership flies through the Capitol. Indeed, class-size reduction was sold to voters as “benefiting kids.” In fact, its main effect was growing the numbers of dues-paying members rather than improving the academic skills of, particularly, poor and minority children. California’s teachers are among the highest-paid in the nation; yet there is little accountability for student achievement or teacher performance. Tenure and seniority are protected. Laws make it almost impossible to fire teachers for incompetence or misconduct. Charter schools — mostly nonunion — are vilified. Any hint of privatization, including creating Special Opportunity Scholarships for kids locked in failing schools, is off the table.