By Jim Miller
With the death of Antonin Scalia on February 13th, public sector unions in America were given a reprieve from what was sure to be a bad ruling in the Friedrichs v CTA case before the Supreme Court. As Michael Hiltzik explained in the Los Angeles Times:
The target of the Friedrichs lawsuit, and several others just like it, is the “agency” or “fair share” fee. Under the law and according to a 1977 Supreme Court decision known as the Abood case, unionized public employees can be assessed nonmember fees to cover solely the cost of negotiations and contract enforcement, without being compelled to join the union and support its political activities by paying full union dues. That’s the arrangement in California.
For decades, union opponents have been trying to get Abood overruled. Friedrichs, like the other cases, paints the challenges as blows on behalf of free speech; the argument is that the public employees compelled to pay agency fees are being forced to support political positions taken by their unions with which they disagree, and therefore their freedom of speech is being infringed. In truth, however, these lawsuits aren’t about free speech or improving education for children. They’re about silencing the political voice of teacher unions by cutting off their revenues.
I have written about the significance of the Friedrichs case before here and here, but the bottom line is that a bad ruling would have been a gut punch not just for public sector unions but for the American union movement as a whole and the many aligned progressive and non-profit community organizations that are funded by labor. It would have tilted the scales even further in favor of corporations and conservative billionaires in the political realm and made many already challenging progressive goals nearly impossible to achieve.
The end result of the deadlock on the Supreme Court that Scalia’s demise creates is that unions dodge the Friedrichs bullet in the short term and most likely the long term IF a Democrat wins the White House in November and appoints a liberal to the Court.
Here in California, it is not just the ability of unions to play in politics that will be at stake but the state’s fiscal shape and, consequently, the health of its education system and other vital public services.
As we all know, it was primarily public sector union money that helped pass Proposition 30’s tax increases on high earners that have stopped the bleeding in the Golden State’s education system. And (surprise!) none of the dire economic consequences that were predicted by Proposition 30’s plutocratic opponents have come to pass.
Indeed, at least for the moment, California’s finances look positively rosy from afar. However, as Peter Schrag points out in “Progressive California: The Long Road Back”:
California’s tax system—indeed its whole fiscal structure—is still a dysfunctional mess, nearly as illogical, inequitable, and inefficient as it has been for the previous 40 years. The tax limits and the restrictions on government imposed by Proposition 13, the sweeping property-tax reduction and limitation initiative passed by voters during the great tax revolt that began in 1978, are still on the books, and, according to the polls, as beloved by voters as ever.
Despite the infusion of the new money coming from the state’s high-tech-driven economic recovery and the taxes generated by Proposition 30, California is still struggling to get its per-pupil spending up to the national average. In March 2015, the state was 29th in the nation, about $975 below the national average. It charges some 20 times as much in higher-education tuition and fees as it did 40 years ago—more than $13,000 a year for in-state students, versus $647 in 1975–1976. Students now pay more in tuition than the state contributes to university support.
Thus much work still remains to be done, like passing an extension of Proposition 30 this fall (a prospect that Schrag is not particularly optimistic about), and, beyond that, finally addressing the core of California’s fiscal woes—Proposition 13—by reassessing commercial property taxes in the way that the Make It Fair Coalition has been suggesting.
Only until the mess that Proposition 13 created has been addressed will California be able to fund the social, educational, and infrastructure needs of what will surely be a challenging future. It’s a big task and, as Schrag notes, despite California’s über-liberal image, it is a job we have not been up to doing:
But on tax reform—by whatever definition—California’s baby steps have barely moved the state out from under the shadow of Proposition 13 and its other tax-limitation follow-ups. They have not broken through most of the crippling restrictions on state and local government action or restored the progressive communitarian ethic that grew out of the Depression and the common effort of World War II.
And because of the economic and cultural tribalism fostered by the Internet, the cell phone, and their associated technologies, we may never get it back. Democrats dominate the politics of California, in large measure because of the Republicans’ long disregard of the state’s ethnic minorities and their disdain for gender and other major social issues. But the state’s dominant streak has been individualistic and libertarian, not New Deal–progressive. With the increasing presence of Latinos in the electorate, that may be starting to change, but it hasn’t yet. Next to the California of a half-century ago, today’s tax policy and political culture still look depressingly backward. Compared with those of other states today, however, they look like a shining example.
But perhaps, with a little more electoral luck, California will be able to rise to the challenge and a revitalized, progressive union-community coalition may be able to take advantage of our state’s changing landscape and start looking forward to a better time where smart tax reform makes a more just, communitarian future possible.