Few states have been as profoundly shaped by their public-sector unions as California. Government labor groups there elect their own bosses and number among the biggest spenders on ballot campaigns to raise taxes and expand government. They have engineered some of the richest retirement benefits in the public sector—at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars in public debt.
But one California businessman thinks that he can change all that. Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper has filed a petition with the California attorney general’s office for a ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution to outlaw public-sector unions. “Public employment costs have exploded, including taxpayer funded pensions and lifetime health benefits not enjoyed by employees in the private sector,” the petition reads. “Worse yet, some public employee unions have used their money and power to protect bad employees engaged in unspeakable misconduct and others who have completely failed at their jobs.”
Draper faces a strenuous uphill battle. He must collect close to 1 million signatures to qualify an amendment to the state constitution for the ballot—a path likely to be made more difficult by union-friendly election officials, who will throw obstacles in his way. If he succeeds, he’ll then face an election against the most well-heeled opponents: Golden State public-sector unions spend hundreds of millions of dollars every election cycle, and they’ll empty their coffers to defeat him.
Still, the politics of California are undergoing upheaval, as increasingly disgruntled voters consider recalling Governor Gavin Newsom, even as his closest allies, the public-sector unions, pour in money to help him stay in office. A recall of Newsom in the special election on September 14 would panic government union leaders and dramatically improve Draper’s odds of success.
Draper has long been critical of the direction of politics in his state. He made several attempts to put a question on the ballot to split California into several states in order to decentralize power and break the hold of special interests. That quixotic effort fell short in 2013, when he failed to collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. But in 2018, he gathered enough names for a proposal to carve California up into three states. Though opponents derided the idea as “wacky,” they raised $10 million to ensure its defeat. Meantime, Draper committed more than $2 million of his own money to get the initiative on the ballot, only to have the state supreme court order it removed. “Apparently, the insiders are in cahoots and the establishment doesn’t want to find out how many people don’t like the way California is being governed,” Draper said then. “They are afraid to know the answer as to whether we need a fresh start here in California.”
Draper seems ready to undertake a massive effort against the state’s public-sector unions. A founding partner of the venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, he’s made his money by investing in the likes of Skype and Tesla and has a net worth estimated by Forbes at $1.5 billion. He’s passionate about what he calls the decline of California and the role of public unions in the state’s politics. “Union bosses have run our state in the shadows for about 50 years. They punish candidates who don’t do their bidding for them. There is even evidence that they manipulate the courts,” he wrote in a recent article. “Union bosses have taken California schools from the top to the bottom, they have made it so that there are fewer jobs, more homeless, and people are fleeing the state to work. They have brought California quality of life from 1st to 50th.”
Unions have plenty of allies in state government in their efforts to thwart Draper. In 2012, for instance, Chuck Reed, a reform-minded Democratic mayor of San Jose, gathered enough signatures to place a referendum on the state ballot to allow adjustments to public-sector pensions and retiree health benefits. But then-Attorney General Kamala Harris, tasked with the job of writing a description of the initiative for voters, titled it misleadingly as a proposal that “Reduces pensions for public employees” and added several descriptions that mischaracterized the act. The Modesto Bee editorialized that her representation “read like talking points taken straight from a public employee union boss’ campaign handbook.” Disheartened, supporters withdrew the initiative.
More recently, the unions’ allies in state government have stepped in to protect them from membership losses in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus v. AFSCME that government workers cannot be compelled to remain in a union. In response, state government entities have given unions the power to determine when and how members can resign their membership, and labor leaders have thrown up numerous obstacles. A recent class-action lawsuit by a University of California employee, filed with the help of the National Right to Work Foundation, charges that the school allows the University Professional and Technical Employees union to impose unreasonable conditions on employees looking to leave the group, including requirements that the union creates without informing employees when they file to resign.
Despite all these obstacles, Californians may be ready for dramatic change. Led by unions, Newsom supporters have poured $68.4 million into keeping him in office, compared with just $9.5 million being spent by opponents. Among Newsom’s biggest backers are the California Teachers Association, which has contributed $1.8 million, the state’s prison guard union ($1.75 million), and several locals of the Service Employees International union, which have collectively given $4 million. Even so, polls show nearly half of voters saying that they’ll vote for recall.
When voters are angry, all the union money in the world may not be enough. Just how angry are California voters? We’ll find out soon.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images