What Comes Around Goes Around

Dan Walters is a veteran and often astute observer of California politics and he recognizes some of the budget problems California suffers under comes from the power of big labor unions have in the state, especially the public employee unions:

When California’s government employees gained collective bargaining rights three-plus decades ago, thanks to then-Gov. Jerry Brown, it was depicted as merely giving those on the public payroll equality with private workers, but in fact it went way beyond parity.

Yes, unions could bargain with public agencies on contracts.

But unlike those in private business, public worker unions could try to select those on the other side of the bargaining table by contributing heavily to campaigns for state and local offices.

Seeking contracts from those you’ve placed in office is a far cry from the arms-length bargaining over private sector union contracts.

Meanwhile, even though public workers had contract rights, the civil service system remained in effect, making it extremely difficult to discipline or fire someone on the public payroll for anything less than committing a felony.

In private industry, conditions for hiring and firing are governed by contract and/or company policy, not densely detailed civil service rules.

Finally, public unions could bypass collective bargaining and seek benefits through legislation — again drawing on their relationships with politicians they helped elect.

A case in point occurred a decade ago, when then-Gov. Gray Davis championed public union-backed legislation that sharply increased pension benefits after unions helped him win the governorship — a major contributor to pension systems’ current financial travails.

Given those three parallel systems of governing public worker employment, it’s not surprising that public employees enjoy job security and fringe benefits far beyond those in private employment — a gap that has expanded sharply during this severe recession.

Yes, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has ordered three-day-a-month unpaid furloughs for state workers under his control and some local agencies have followed suit, but they pale in comparison to the massive salary and fringe benefit cuts and layoffs in the private sector. And that brings us to the great Columbus Day flap.

A new contract between the state and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is in limbo but the Legislature decreed that state workers would no longer be given Columbus Day off, still leaving them with far more paid holidays than private workers.

The union said that without a new contract, the old contract, including Columbus Day, was still in force and filed a grievance over its members being ordered to work.

It’s ironic that the SEIU and other public unions don’t hesitate to pursue pensions and other benefits via legislation, outside the collective bargaining process, but when the tables are turned and the Legislature acts against their wishes, they claim a violation of collective bargaining.

It calls to mind several clichés, such as turnabout being fair play, what’s good for the goose being equally good for the gander, or — a political favorite — what goes around comes around.

While Walters has seen the problems of public union “collective bargaining” power. Let’s ensure that legislation moving through Congress — and supported by both parties — doesn’t turn the country into one big version of California.