Prop Zero
The Starting Point for Commentary and Coverage of California Politics

The Real Shame of the Unions: Fighting Disclosure

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    NEWSLETTERS

    A little more than two years ago, the Sacramento Bee did a very good thing. They put up an on-line database that permitted anyone to check on the salary of state employees.

    This is the most basic sort of public accountability. Taxpayers pay the bills, and they deserve to know what public employees are making. It's also a very good anti-fraud device. A person who knows or has dealings with a public employee (perhaps one who is misrepresenting herself, or might be doing another job on state time) can check on what that employee's real job is supposed to do and what they're making -- and can use the information to tell state administrators or the press.

    Did state employee unions welcome this disclosure? No, they fought it, complaining to the Bee and even holding a protest outside the newspaper. They cited privacy concerns. But it's hard not to be cynical and think their motives were to hide how well some of their members are doing.

    That cynical view gets confirmation when you listen to state worker representatives argue that pension payouts should not be public. To the contrary, such pensions need to be public for all the same reasons salaries must be. In this area, there's been so much gaming and abuse of the system that full disclosure is essential, as the journalist Daniel Borenstein has argued. Or to think of it another way, a government whose employees don't have to tell us what they're making is, at its heart, secret government.

    But the unions and their defenders persist in arguing otherwise. Which is too bad. The overwhelming majority of state worker pensions are entirely defensible. In the worst cases of abuse, such as in Bell, it's been management, not union-represented workers, who are doing the abusing. The unions would be wise to embrace the sunshine, and act as though they have nothing to hide.