Commentary: Should Legislature’s employees be unionized?

Four-plus decades ago, the Legislature and Jerry Brown, then in the first stages of his two-part governorship, decreed that public employees had the right to join unions and bargain for salaries and other working conditions.

The argument for extending collective bargaining rights to state and local government workers, including teachers, was that they should have the same rights as other wage earners.

It was and is, however, a questionable rationale, since public employees differ markedly from those in the private sector.

For one thing, they already had civil service status, which was not changed when collective bargaining was enacted.

For another, they would be bargaining with elected officials who had no personal stakes in the contracts they would sign.

Moreover, public employee unions could influence the identity of those officials by providing or withholding campaign funds, and still could seek, via legislation, changes in their benefits, such as pensions, outside of the collective bargaining process.

One example: 1999 legislation that retroactively increased pension benefits for state employees. It was emulated by most local governments and contributed to a multi-billion-dollar funding shortfall now plaguing governments at all levels.

Given all of those factors, it’s not surprising that public employee unions became political powerhouses in California, dominating the state’s Democratic Party and helping it dominate California politics.

The extension of collective bargaining to public employees in the 1970s, however, had exceptions – basically those who worked for politicians themselves.

The governor’s cadre of top administrative employees and advisers were exempt, as were hundreds of workers, from the top “consultants” to the lowest-ranked clerks, who drew paychecks from the Legislature.

All were considered to be “at-will” employees, hired and perhaps fired at the direction of their political employers with few, if any, of the rights enjoyed by private sector workers, unionized or not.

That’s why, for instance, legislative employees are routinely marshaled to walk precincts or do other campaign work, supposedly while taking vacations or other personal leave.

The backlash in the Capitol over sexual harassment of women by male legislators and other authority figures has exposed the vulnerability of legislative employees. Some women have been abruptly dismissed when they tried to complain about mistreatment.

Legislative leaders have promised procedural reforms, but they’ve not embraced a solution offered by Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, a Democratic assemblywoman from San Diego: a bill she’s writing to allow legislative employees to join unions.

“This is the strangest employment situation that I’ve been in,” Gonzalez Fletcher, a former local union official, told Capital Public Radio. “Oh, my gosh. I can’t imagine if the Capitol is the only place you’ve worked, and then you go out in the real world and try to understand – but this is weird.”

Collective bargaining for California’s public employees may have been a questionable idea. But it’s not going away and there’s absolutely no reason why Capitol workers, except for a small cadre of senior staffers, should not have civil service status and unionization, if they wish.

If nothing else, it would counter the do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do tendency of politicians to impose all sorts of restrictions and mandates on everyone but themselves.

It also would give employees a formal process to complain when they are mistreated. And it might curb such unseemly practices as compelling them to work off the books in campaigns, the sort of thing that could land a private employer in jail.

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