The Agenda

Daniel DiSalvo on the Political Influence of California’s Public-Sector Unions

In “The Nays Have It,” a new report sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, political scientist Daniel DiSalvo analyzes how California’s public-sector unions have used ballot initiatives to advance their interests:

Public-sector unions have taken a position on 42 percent of the 178 ballot initiatives over the last 30 years. Voters ratified nearly half the measures they supported, and 75 percent of the measures that the unions opposed were defeated. In other words, unions are fairly effective playing “offense,” working to win their goals at the ballot box. But they are extraordinarily effective playing “defense,” using initiative campaigns to block proposals that threaten their interests.

Even these figures may understate the extent to which unions have succeeded in using initiative campaigns to meet their policy goals: we found that whenever a proposal was especially important to the unions, such that they pulled out all the stops in their campaign efforts, they almost always won.

In these big battles, public-employee unions often outspend and out-mobilize their opponents by huge margins. A large majority of these fights have been over education policy, with the teachers’ unions being the central actor. For example, among the unions’ victories was Proposition 98 in 1988, which mandated that 40 percent of the state’s general fund be spent annually on K–12 education and community colleges. That measure has greatly constricted the state’s fiscal flexibility, reduced efficiency in public education, and helped make California’s teachers the most expensive in the country. In opposition, the teachers’ unions twice defeated proposals for school vouchers and other proposals to bring more accountability to the state’s public schools. 

DiSalvo draws on this history to conclude that California’s “paycheck protection” ballot initiative, which is designed to prevent public-sector unions from using revenues drawn from automatic dues collection for political activism, will likely go down to defeat for the third time. 


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