February 1, 2015

The Labor Unions and “Groundhog Day”

The California Legislature is back for a new two-year session with dozens of newly-elected members and new leaders in both the Assembly and Senate.  Reporters and pundits are busy speculating about their agendas, what issues will dominate attention and the role Governor Jerry Brown will play in all of it.

For all the speculation, however, one thing is certain:  California’s big labor unions will return to the Capitol with another long and ambitious wish list, including bills to impose more mandates on the state’s heavily over-regulated employers.

This is a sorry version of the movie “Groundhog Day.”  Every year, labor unions conjure up horror stories about employers doing terrible things to employees, and with the help of allied liberal groups and media outlets, the narrative is created:  Businesses are hurting workers by (fill in the blank), and existing law and/or enforcement is inadequate to protect workers from this abuse, so we need a new law that cracks down on these abusive employers.

Business interests then react by sending forth their lobbyists to try to inject missing facts, context and logic into the discussion.  And to argue that the legislation promoted by labor unions is not necessary/would cost jobs/is punitive and would speed the loss of California businesses to friendlier states.

The union-sponsored bills then go through committee hearings in the Legislature, which is not a serious process.  Bills of this sort are referred to the Labor Committees of the Assembly and Senate, which are stacked with pro-union Democrats and just one or two Republicans.  Rather than giving serious consideration to the legislation and the facts and arguments on both sides, the committees simply act as another platform to generate media coverage for the unions before approving their bills.

At this early stage of the process, virtually every advocate on both sides knows that the unions’ bills cannot be stopped in the Legislature (although there have been notable exceptions, such as the defeat of the United Farm Workers’ 2012 bill reducing the overtime requirement for field workers from 10 hours to eight hours per day).  The influence of the labor unions in the California Legislature is simply too great, and the advocates know that the fate of most labor-sponsored bills will be determined by the governor.

This puts enormous pressure on the governor.  Every summer, as lawmakers prepare to wrap up their work for the year, the governor’s staff nervously watches as multiple union-backed bills steadily advance toward their boss’s desk.  Republican governors—especially George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson—had no difficulty rejecting every onerous labor union bill that made it to their desk, but Democratic governors, elected with the strong support of labor unions, see things differently.  They are likely to agree with the unions that there is a legitimate problem that the unions’ legislation properly addresses.  And where they agree with business advocates that the unions have overreached, a veto may be in the cards, but the unions’ calculation is that no Democratic governor will veto all their bills, no matter how harmful they may be to jobs and the economy.  Their logic is simple:  If we throw lots of bills at the governor, some will get through, if only for purely political reasons.

So 2015 begins with business advocates—and Governor Brown’s team—watching for the next wave of labor union legislation and preparing to live through another Groundhog Day.

Here’s an idea:  STOP!

Recently, former Governors Deukmejian, Wilson and Gray Davis co-authored an opinion article in The Los Angeles Times in which they called on the Legislature to halt, for the next five years, passing any legislation that would cost jobs.  It sounded like a call for a moratorium to allow the state’s job creators a chance to breathe (and build their businesses) without worrying about labor’s next legislative fusillade.

Of course, a Legislature dominated by members closely aligned with labor unions is unlikely to heed the former governors’ call.  But they should.  They should give a serious look at the immense body of statutes and regulations California has imposed on employers and worry more about fair and adequate enforcement of those rather than adding new laws and rules on top of the massive and incomprehensible heap.

“Groundhog Day” is old and tired, and it is stifling California’s job creators.  Only the Legislature can make it stop.