Ripples of anti-union moves in Wisconsin felt in Capitol

A move backed by Republicans in Wisconsin and other states to curtail or abolish the collective bargaining rights or benefits of public employees is sparking only limited interest in California, which has more than 230,000 state employees alone and is a heavily Democratic state.

A freshman Orange County lawmaker wants to eliminate bargaining for public employees’ pension benefits, saying the government workers’ unions wield disproportionate clout. His legislation, which would allow those benefits to be set by the Legislature and approved by the governor, does not deal with wage or health benefits, as in Wisconsin.
Assemblyman Allan R. Mansoor – a former mayor of Costa Mesa and a former deputy sheriff – says those benefits have gotten out of control and that nobody effectively represents taxpayers at the bargaining table.

His legislation, AB 961, targets four public retirement funds: The State Teachers’ Retirement System, the Public Employees’ Retirement System, the Judges’ Retirement System and the Judges’ Retirement System II. All provide benefits based in part upon credited years of service.

Mansoor’s bill has little chance of being approved in the Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats in both houses, but the issue of the influence of public employee unions is a sensitive one in California, where public unions wield substantial political and financial power and use it to back Democratic contenders.

But Democrats contend that the GOP’s anti-union move in Wisconsin, although presented as a budget-balancing strategy, is backed by Republican business interests anxious to wound the unions.

On Tuesday evening, some 2,000 union members gathered in Capitol Park to show solidarity for the workers in Wisconsin. The gathering was hastily put together by the California Teachers Association, the SEIU Local 1000 – at 95,000 workers, the state government’s largest single bargaining unit – and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

“Public employee unions have all the power to influence politicians and taxpayers are left with no one advocating on their behalf,” Mansoor said in a written statement announcing the legislation. Mansoor, a former deputy sheriff, has long sought public-pension changes. His office described him as the first Republican member to propose legislation that reforms California’s collective bargaining process.

“We cannot fix our state’s problems unless we are willing to address public employee unions,” he said.

Legislative Republicans are in the midst of putting together proposals to reduce public pensions and increase workers’ contributions. The proposals are likely to be included in the intensifying negotiations over Gov. Brown’s cut-and-tax budget proposal.

Brown, a Democrat, signed the law during his first term that allows public workers to bargain collectively.

Democrats see the anti-union move as an attempt to cripple their political base, and note that in Wisconsin, the anti-union legislation authored by Republican Gov. Scott Walker exempts the members of the two bargaining units that typically vote Republican – the state troopers and the firefighters.

In Sacramento, AFSCME said the moves to abolish collective bargaining were unconstitutional, and said attempts to limit the unions’ authority was a return to 19th-century working conditions.

“It’s freedom or serfdom,” said AFSCME California Political Director Willie Pelote.  “What Scott Walker, his Republican legislature, and their supporters are trying to do in Wisconsin is to eliminate our First Amendment rights to assemble, organize, and bargain collectively as free citizens.  They seem determined to take us back to the 19th century when women couldn’t vote, child labor was rampant, and slavery was still legal.”

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