Why Can Public Employees Form Unions and Make Political Contributions?

Gerrie Schipske

The issue of public employee unions is more in the news as some debate that perhaps they hold too much power over elected officials. Let’s discuss.

Q. Why are public employees allowed to join unions?

A. Public employees in California could not always join unions. Government workers were considered too essential in the operation of the state, counties and cities to be allowed to collectively bargain. Governor Ronald Reagan in 1968 signed the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act (MMBA), first law that gave public sector employees the right to collective bargaining. It was followed by laws allowing collective bargaining for teachers and state employees.

These laws give public employees the right to organize and bargaining over wages, hours and working conditions. They have the right to file grievances against their employer and to be represented during disciplinary hearings by their union rep. Employees must pay a monthly member fee to the designated union. Most cities have “agency shops” which means all employees must become members of the union.

Q. Do not public employees have protection under civil service?

A. Since 1913, California state, county and municipal employees do have protection under a “Civil Service” system which mandates that all appointments and promotions must be made based strictly on the employee’s ability to do the job, meaning on that person’s “merit.”

Long Beach has a Charter Civil Service Commission which meets to rule on various personnel-related actions, as well, as any issues arising from tests administered by the Civil Service Department. The Civil Service Commission’s predominant role is to hear appeals for disciplinary actions, such as suspensions and dismissals.

Q. What is the difference in public and private union contract negotiating?

A. Private sector unions negotiate with labor relations representatives of corporations – not the board of directors. Public employee unions – especially at the city level – negotiate with the same elected officials they often help politically. Sure, cities have HR managers to conduct the negotiations, but throughout negotiations with police and fire, while I served on council, the mayor and several members of the council talked directly with the unions on their demands. This gives the unions tremendous power.

Q. Can public employee contract negotiations be made public, so voters know what is being offered?

A. Yes. School districts are mandated to “sunshine” their labor contracts at a public meeting and to inform the public what items are being negotiated. Cities could so the same. When I proposed doing so I was told during my videotaped interview with police and fire unions, that I would never be endorsed for mayor or City Council.

Q. Can union dues be used for political campaigns?

A. Absolutely no. Union dues cannot be used for political campaigns. Unions must set up programs like, COPE (Committee on Political Education), and ask their members for contributions. Members sign a disclosure that it is understood the contribution is voluntary and non-tax deductible. Some of the COPE funds can go into a PAC (Political Action Committee) for direct contributions to candidates. Other COPE funds are used for voter registration and education and lobbying.

Q. Can contributions from unions be prohibited in city elections?

A. San Diego prohibits accepting contributions from other than individuals and political parties, with maximums on each: “Contributions from all other types of entities, including companies, corporations, partnerships, joint ventures, associations, committees, labor unions, and groups of individuals acting in concert, may not be accepted.”

The problem remains that funds in any amount can be contributed to “independent expenditure committees” which can spend inordinate amounts on behalf of a candidate.

Q. Who keeps track of how city unions spend their money?

A. No one. Unlike private sector unions who are required to file on-line accessible, financial reports with the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Labor Management Standards (USDOLOLMS), state, county and city unions are not required to file any disclosures.

Q. What can be done to diminish the power of political unions in elections?

A. Prohibit political contributions, “sunshine contracts” and require that before a city can negotiate with an employee association/union that it receive financial reports disclosing similar to what is filed with USDOLOLMS.




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