In May 2012, parents at Culver City’s El Marino Language School, located in heavily Democratic West Los Angeles, beat back an effort by the local chapter of the Association of Classified Employees (ACE) to unionize the school’s part-time teachers, many of whom were donating their time to teach foreign languages to elementary school kids. Public-sector unions across California are having the same kind of trouble. In a state beset with fiscal crises, unions are fighting over diminished local budgets—and Democrats must increasingly choose between satisfying old constituencies or maintaining public services.

After the Culver school board had agreed to let the union enroll adjuncts at one elementary school where parents had been funding the in-class assistants, the union turned its attention to the parent-funded program at El Marino. Parents and teachers were miffed when they discovered that union membership for adjuncts would entail no increase in pay but substantially higher administrative costs. Galvanized, parents from multiple neighborhoods formed United Parents of Culver City to take the fight to the school board—and the El Marino program was preserved.

The parents’ activist group then fielded its own slate of school board candidates in the November 2013 elections, including a former middle school teacher and a past president of the Parent Teacher Association. ACE and the local teachers’ union drafted their own candidates, one with strong ties to the Los Angeles teachers’ union, as well as the union-backed leadership on the L.A. Unified School District board. Parental activism and a low-turnout election helped ensure the defeat of the union-backed candidates.

However, the elections didn’t leave the teachers’ union completely empty-handed. For Culver City voters, the question was whether limited funds should be used to pay for infrastructure improvements (favored by private-sector unions) or school personnel (favored by public-sector unions). In 2009, after the city had failed to secure sufficient federal stimulus money to pay for school improvements, 75 percent of voters approved a school-construction bond. With the bond scheduled to sunset this year, some officials wanted to put a new one on last November’s ballot. But the teachers’ union opposed the bond issue, urging the district to focus on long-term obligations—such as salary increases for teachers. With union pressure mounting, the school board dithered on making a decision. Parents were livid when time ran out to get the bond on the ballot.

In its battles with unions, the parent activists at El Marino Language School stumbled into what could become a central issue in California politics: the fracturing of the coalition between Democrats and their public-employee union allies. The Culver City election showed a clear local division within the Democratic Party, with the two sides representing rival priorities in the fight over limited funds. One side wanted more facilities spending; the other sought pay and benefits increases for teachers.

Benefit costs are squeezing local governments. Municipal bankruptcies in Vallejo, Stockton, San Bernardino, and Mammoth Lakes have exposed unsustainable “OPEB” (other post-employment benefits) costs such as health care. As the “silver tsunami” of baby boomers retires from public service, taxpayers face the prospect of governments becoming smaller and more expensive (when current and retiree payrolls are combined). Municipalities can’t afford to pay a current workforce with a growing “shadow” one. Cities are tapping general-fund dollars to cover pension costs.

The crisis has inspired some California Democrats to embrace public-sector pension reform. Leading the effort is San Jose mayor Chuck Reed, whose effort to qualify a statewide ballot initiative for the November election foundered last month—in part because of a slanted ballot summary written by Democratic attorney general Kamala Harris. After a lawsuit brought against Harris’s office failed in March, Reed says he is committed to putting the measure back on the 2016 ballot. Voters could then decide whether to let cities and the state renegotiate pension and benefit obligations prospectively, while leaving accrued benefits untouched. Reed argues his case from the left. “Skyrocketing retirement costs are crowding out funding for essential public services,” he says. In Vallejo, recent city council elections have one retiring Democratic councilor wondering if public-sector union influence may put the recently bankrupt city back on the brink. “The Democratic Party has become too dependent on public safety unions to fund its political campaigns,” wrote Marti Brown in the Sacramento Bee. “Public employee political action committees are buying elections. Taxpayers pay for the salaries and benefits of public employees.”

California’s infrastructure, schools, and education system all need upgrades. But with baby boomers retiring from the public-sector workforce and the bill for many of the long-term promises made by California’s municipalities rapidly coming due, where will the money come from? The answer to that question may finally drive a wedge between California’s Democrats and its public-sector unions.


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