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Venture capitalist wanted to split California into six. Now, he wants to gut public unions

  • Updated
Tim Drape

Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper talks to reporters next to six boxes of petitions for a ballot initiative that would have asked voters to split California into six separate states, before turning them into the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters, Tuesday, July 15, 2014.

A proposed California ballot measure — filed by a Silicon Valley billionaire venture capitalist who had once proposed splitting the state into six — aims to end collective bargaining for public sector workers.

Proponents of the constitutional amendment could start collecting signatures within the next few weeks to get it on the 2022 general election ballot, according to estimates from the Attorney General's Office.

They'd need to gather about 1 million signatures in the next six months or so in order for the measure to get on the ballot.

With billionaire Tim Draper funding the signature-gathering effort, opponents of the initiative are gearing up for a fight, saying the measure fails to recognize the vital roles those such as public health workers and firefighters have played during the pandemic and the recent wildfire seasons.

"Like Mr. Draper's previous efforts, this proposal makes neither fiscal nor practical sense and should be added to his scrap heap of failed ballot initiatives," said Ted Toppin, chairman of Californians for Retirement Security which is a coalition of unions representing public workers and retirees, in a statement.

Even as union membership has fallen overall in California over the last few decades, the public sector has been one of the few bright spots for the state's labor movement. More than half of California public sector workers were union members in 2020, according to unionstats.com.

Still, public sector unions have faced a number of recent challenges. A 2018 decision from the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited them from collecting so-called fair share fees from non-members, a ruling that deprived some large California unions of tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue.

Union membership among state employees also decreased in 2020, as the pandemic made it more challenging to recruit new workers.

Bargaining wages and benefits

The ballot measure, if passed, would represent a serious threat to public sector unions, effectively stripping them of a key service they offer to members: negotiating pay and working conditions with government employers.

Public sector employees have been collectively bargaining in California since the late 1960s, according to a report from the Legislative Analyst's Office examining the measure.

Under the initiative, the California State Personnel Board would instead establish state workers' wages and benefits.

The initiative doesn't specify what would happen for public sector workers outside of state government, such as teachers or city employees. But it's likely that local governments such as cities and school districts would establish wages and benefits for their workers under the initiative.

The initiative would not prevent unions from representing employees during disciplinary hearings, engaging in political speech or advocating for employees in general.

Workers who decide to leave their job in light of the measure, if passed, would get up to 12 months of severance pay.

Union leaders such as Toppin said the severance pay provision could result in billions of dollars in increased costs for taxpayers while disrupting services provided by workers such as nurses, peace officers and others.

How unions shape California policy

Draper and other critics of California public employee unions contend the current system warps government spending priorities, particularly when labor organizations donate to political candidates and then bargain contracts with leaders they help elect.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, for instance, cut a $1.75 million check to support Gov. Gavin Newsom during the recall election weeks after securing a new labor agreement with $5,000 pandemic bonuses for some 28,000 prison guards. Teachers' unions regularly spend heavily to support local school board candidates.

That has led to problems such as schools not reopening quickly to help California's parents during the pandemic, said Lance Christensen, chief operations officer at the California Policy Center, an Orange County-based libertarian think tank. "Our kids have been sacrificed at the altars of the public unions."

Draper, in his August blog post announcing the measure, echoed Christensen's point, saying public-sector unions have curtailed the state from innovating.

"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," Draper said.

But opponents of the measure warn it could have a far-reaching consequence for the state and its workers at large. Wisconsin, which in 2011 effectively ended collective bargaining for public sector workers, saw its public sector workers' pay drop significantly afterward, said Steve Smith, a spokesman for the California Labor Federation.

An analysis by the Wisconsin State Journal, a Madison-based newspaper, found the state and local governments reduced spending by more than $12 billion in light of the policy albeit "at the cost of public employees and exacerbated inequality in the state.

Draper's measure is one of more than two dozen initiatives gathering signatures for the 2022 ballot. Several have already qualified, including an initiative to legalize sports betting and to reverse the ban on the sale of flavored tobacco.

Calistoga Elementary teacher Matthew Gudenius uses the piratical 'R' sound to teach phonics to first-grade students in this video produced during the pandemic shutdown of schools.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Related to this story

When it comes to splitting California into two or more new states, silly season never seems to end. Since 1940, at least 27 efforts to alter this state’s boundaries or divide it into as many as six new states have arisen and failed.

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