Sunday, March 7, 2010


By Steven Greenhut

The Forum Press, $18.95, 297 pages

Reviewed by Jeremy Lott

Several months back, I called a good friend, an economist, and sought his advice. What, I asked him, should be the subject of my next book? He said I ought to write a volume on public-sector unions. Specifically, it should look at some of the outrageous deals they are able to wrangle from state, local and federal governments; how some localities have literally had to file for bankruptcy protection to get concessions from the unions; and how union workers have been able to carve out special protections that we would never even think of granting workers in the private sector.

It was good advice, but I’m glad I didn’t take it because Steven Greenhut would have beat me to market with “Plunder! How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives, and Bankrupting the Nation.” And after Mr. Greenhut has held forth on this subject, it’s hard to know what one could add, especially where the state of California is concerned. (California these days seems to be ground zero for union mayhem.)

The author is a former columnist for the libertarian-leaning Orange County Register newspaper and the current head of the Pacific Research Institute’s new journalism center in Sacramento (which will turn promising investigative journalists loose on the government of California - legislators beware). He knows where a lot of bodies are buried and came prepared with pick and shovel.

For special public-sector union-only privileges, it’s hard to beat the one Mr. Greenhut opens with. He tells us that roughly 1 million drivers in California have what amounts to a get-out-of-ticket-free pass on their license plates, thanks to a special “confidential records program” in state databases.

These people can, with impunity, run red lights that have video cameras monitoring them, ignore parking tickets and get off with countless warnings when they are stopped by police. They can flout the law because the process necessary to get around the computer “shield” that guards their private data is too difficult to undertake for petty offenses. The thing that unites these 1 million drivers is that they all belong to or are in some way connected to the state’s public employee unions, which are bringing pressure in the state Legislature to add even more unionized civil servants to the program.

What is really incredible is the rationale the unions use to push for even more employees to be shielded. “The special license program,” Mr. Greenhut explains, “started in 1978 with the seemingly unobjectionable purpose of protecting the personal addresses of officials who deal directly with criminals. Police argued that the bad guys could call the DMV and get home addresses [and then] go harm the officers and their family members.”

However, the laws about privacy have changed since 1978. The Department of Motor Vehicles is no longer allowed to give out such information, so the program arguably is unnecessary, and yet “the list of categories keeps growing and growing.” In fact, mere days after Mr. Greenhut’s former newspaper reported on such abuses, “legislators voted to expand the protections to even more classes of government workers.” It was sent out of committee on a bipartisan vote of 13-0.

Mr. Greenhut does a good job of showing how California’s public employee unions have done so much to cause the state’s budget troubles by negotiating large salaries, benefits and retirement packages far out of line with state revenues. He does an even better job of showing how the unions respond when their privilege is threatened.

For instance, they managed to shoot down all of the referendums Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger put on the state ballot in 2005 to get a grip on state spending. That had such an effect on the governor that during the recent budget negotiations, he reportedly told the Legislature’s Democratic leaders that they could save everybody time by bringing in the folks who could actually sign off on a deal: the union bosses.

Labor leaders wield so much influence because they are willing to invest heavily in politics, sometimes purely as a show of force. “My personal theory,” Mr. Greenhut explains, “is that the unions will pull out the big guns to defeat a tiny reform they don’t like given how easy it is for them to raise the money. … And they often will blast away just to prove to their membership that they are engaged in the process. One union official admitted that despite polls showing that he couldn’t beat a particular candidate, he spent big anyway or else the membership would have given him a hard time.”

The author uses that union give-no-quarter mentality to argue that would-be reformers should try for more, not less. He asks, if you’re going to get as much grief for a small reform as a large one, why not think big? It’s a question state legislators across the country will ponder as public-union perks threaten to drag their fiscal futures into the abyss.

Jeremy Lott is editor of Capital Research Center’s Labor Watch newsletter and author of “The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency” (Thomas Nelson, 2008).

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