New Group Targets California's Labor Unions

Californians for Public Union Reform seeks to end collective bargaining for public employees.
by | February 10, 2011

Lanny Ebenstein wants to bring California public sector unions down. And through a new Santa Barbara-based organization, he's on a mission to raise at least $1 million to get enough signatures to put an initiative on next year's ballot.

Californians for Public Union Reform launched this month with the goal of putting an end to union representation of state government employees. As the group sees it, collective bargaining has plagued California, adding greater financial strain to the state's already battered budget.

"The bottom line is that public sector employees are being paid too much in the state in all different levels of government," says Ebenstein, a UC Santa Barbara economist and the reform group's treasurer in a phone interview. "Until public sector compensation is brought in line with the private sector, we'll continue to have the false choice of higher taxes or program cuts."

Ebenstein, who is also head of the California Center for Public Policy, has been a vocal opponent of the salaries and benefits of the state's employees. He authored last year's report, "Reforming Public Employee Compensation and Pensions," in which he argued that the overcompensation of public employees has put a troubling burden on taxpayers.

Simmering resentment toward labor unions and the compensation packages of public workers impacted last year's elections across the country. And as the Wall Street Journal reported (as noted in the Sacramento Bee), at least 18 other states have already taken similar stands against collective bargaining for some categories of government workers. Virginia and North Carolina prohibit collective bargaining for all public employees. And in Wisconsin and Ohio, GOP governors are considering changes in state collective bargaining laws.

"Since the California State Legislature seems intent on not doing anything serious to tackle the state's significant budget problems, particularly those made worse by undue labor influence, which plays a large role in getting most of those politicians elected, it will probably be up to taxpayers to foment real reform," blogs Adam Summers at the Reason Foundation.

But don't expect labor unions in California to go quietly into the night. This past November, San Francisco unions pumped more than $1 million to defeat Proposition B, which would have forced city employees to contribute more toward their pensions and benefits. According to Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and a former GOP official, a statewide initiative to eliminate collective bargaining has little chance of survival.

"If something like this got on the ballot, it would be World War III, IV and V rolled into one," he says. "I think unions would fight this intensely. It's not a peripheral issue; it cuts to their very existence."