Politics & Policy

The Public-Union Stranglehold on California Politics Is Weakening

SEIU members and supporters take part in a protest march at Los Angeles International Airport in 2012. (Gus Ruelas/Reuters)
Their dominance is far from over, and there is still work to do. But a brighter future is now visible.

Anybody with eyeballs is pretty thrilled to read the news out of California: One of the state’s most powerful government unions is getting out of politics.

Richard Brown, the incoming president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), won election last week on a promise to end the union’s political spending, to cut member dues, and to allow nonmembers to vote.

But there are bigger stories surrounding Brown’s bold declaration.

SEIU’s withdrawal from politics takes place against a backdrop of declining enthusiasm for all of California’s government unions. Three years ago this month, in Janus v. AFSCME, the Supreme Court held that California’s requirement that government workers join unions as a condition of employment was unconstitutional. Police, teachers, firefighters, DMV workers, and others who work at every level of government were suddenly liberated.

There was just one problem: Even today, many government workers do not know their rights. That’s because, in the years leading up to the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision, California lawmakers backed by government unions built a fortress of new laws designed to limit government workers’ rights. In the most poetic — or plain awful — moment, then-governor Jerry Brown signed S.B. 866 into law, which prohibits public officials from saying anything that might “discourage or deter” membership in a government union. Brown signed the bill on June 27, 2018 — the very day the Supreme Court published its decision in Janus. That’s why my own California Policy Center has taken on the job of educating those workers — helping them understand their rights and the rewards of leaving their unions.

As of today, California’s government unions have lost at least 306,000 members, which represents a decline of some $225 million in dues revenue. That revenue decline is driving unions like SEIU to reconsider their priorities. Given that broader drop, Brown’s plan to refocus on member services — and away from formal political spending — is the likeliest outcome for most other government unions.

But let’s be clear: SEIU isn’t ending political spending out of affection for the Constitution and individual liberty or for the rights of their workers. They’re doing this to head off total financial collapse brought about by three years of declining membership. Indeed, the California Policy Center has become so effective at notifying SEIU members of their constitutional right to opt out of their union that SEIU launched a counter-program — expensive marketing campaigns warning members to “PROTECT YOURSELF AND YOUR CO-WORKERS from the California Policy Center and Other Anti-Union Groups.”

The good news for California: As unions abandon their practice of political spending, ordinary Californians of all political persuasions will have an easier path to reform the state’s failed policies. They won’t invariably be confronted by massive union campaigns. They’ll finally have the chance to reform a public education system that badly serves our students, and perhaps begin to solve the homelessness, wildfires, and water shortages that plague our state. We can hope they’ll begin to unwind the Crazytown mash-up of business regulations choking into submission one of the world’s largest economies. They’ll begin to reduce the cost of living so that our children and grandchildren can aspire to live as our parents did.

One day, it’s possible to imagine that we’ll enjoy a political landscape in which union leaders don’t have hundreds of millions of dollars to run the campaigns of candidates who, once in office, rubber-stamp the unions’ agenda.

It’s important to read Brown’s assertions more closely than some enthusiasts have. In declaring that he will end SEIU’s political gamesmanship, Brown clearly has political gamesmanship in mind. In the short term, Brown has said, depriving Democrats of millions of campaign dollars is intended to punish Governor Gavin Newsom, who furloughed some state workers during the pandemic. That’s political. He also wants to eliminate no-strike provisions in union contracts — and when government unions strike for more money, shorter hours, or more union control of the workplace, that’s absolutely political.

For that reason, our work is far from over. While we’re delighted with Brown’s statements, we understand them as a warning: This isn’t SEIU’s surrender. It’s a strategic retreat by a still-powerful union in desperate need of reorganization. Our job of eliminating all government-imposed barriers to liberty and prosperity — including reform of the government unions that exercise nearly total control over the Golden State — that job continues.

Will Swaim — Mr. Swaim is the president of the California Policy Center and a co-host, with David Bahnsen, of National Review’s podcast Radio Free California.

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