Prop Zero
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Are We Asking Too Much of Public Employee Unions?

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    NEWSLETTERS

    There's a big national debate over whether public employee unions have too much power over policymaking and politics. Prop 32 in California is an attempt to curb that power.

    But we don't have nearly enough conversation about whether public employee unions have too much responsibility.

    These unions end up doing far more than representing their members. They are one of the leading arsenals of people and money for the Democratic Party and progressive causes. Just look at California politics and you'll see public employees and their unions have stepped in again and again to defend people who otherwise don't have resources or power in the political process.

    That's what makes the problem of public employee union power so thorny. Yes, they are too powerful in some ways -- particularly in California local governments, where public employees are often on both sides of the bargaining table in union negotiations (since they elect the officials doing the bargaining and since many of those officials come out of the public employee union world).

    But it's also clear that, under the current circumstances, if these unions lost political power and resources (as Prop 32 proposes to do), there would be no entity positioned to step in and fund the advocacy and political work for progressive causes that these unions do.

    So what to do?

    Instead of trying to reduce the political power of these unions, the real solution is to limit their responsibility -- by building structures that can do the socially important work in politics and advocacy that the public employee unions now do. What kind of structures? Stronger local political parties, public processes for deliberation and engagement, and a stronger public media are just a few of the institutions that could be built to do this work.

    If the money and resources currently being devoted to fighting public employees were devoted to building institutions to replace them (and thus limit their reach), then society would be better off. And so would public employee unions, which could focus on their core mission.

    Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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