The United Auto Workers’ strike might seem to signal a resurgence of union power, but the strike is in part a product of the government’s creating incentives for companies to move jobs to right-to-work states. Far from heralding renewal, the strike may turn out to be the unions’ last stand in the Midwest. But this won’t be the end of unions. Their future may lie in services in the blue states—or at least that will be the case if lawmakers in the Golden State get their way.
The California legislature recently passed Assembly Bill 1 with overwhelming support. The new law gives Sacramento’s 1,800 non-supervisory legislative employees (aides, committee staff, and communications representatives) the power to form a union. The case for public-sector unions has always been shaky because it involves a politically powerful organization negotiating with politicians over taxpayer dollars. Public-sector workers are often not allowed to go on strike because many perform essential services (fire and police) that, if stopped, could endanger health and well-being. We might also add legislative aides to the list of essential services because if they strike, lawmaking can’t happen. (Then again, maybe that’s a good thing.)
Assembly Bill 1 prohibits the Public Employment Relations Board (which has the exclusive right to adjudicate and remedy claims of unfair practices) from issuing a decision that “intrudes upon or interferes with the Legislature’s core function of efficient and effective lawmaking.” That may not be entirely credible if other potential legislation currently under consideration amends the state constitution to grant public-sector workers the right to strike or even to sympathy-strike—meaning to strike in support of workers in another sector.
Adding more fuel to the fire, Senate Bill 799, which would pay out unemployment benefits to striking workers, also sailed through the legislature with wide support. This bill is presumably aimed at subsidizing writers and actors in the ongoing actors’ and writers’ strike, but its effects will be felt throughout California’s labor market. Encouraging workers—especially public-sector workers who enable lawmaking—to unionize and paying them to strike is extraordinary legislative mismanagement, all the more so in a state running a $32 billion budget deficit.
It’s still uncertain which of these bills will become law, but the overwhelming support they enjoy in the legislature suggests that lawmakers are looking out for labor and are less concerned about the consequences for California taxpayers. Californians could soon be forced into the unenviable position of paying unemployment benefits for striking workers—including public-sector employees whose salaries they already pay. Nor have lawmakers given much consideration to employers, whether in the government or in the private sector.
Despite a summer of strikes, union membership is on the decline in most states. Many union drives are failing, and while most Americans express support for unions, most of those who aren’t already members of a union don’t want to be in one. In many ways, the union model does not fit in a tech-driven economy in which machines and foreign workers can easily replace domestic labor. The few exceptions to this trend seem to be educated service jobs in blue states. American unions might look very different in the near future, both economically and politically.
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