Prior to giving a speech on civic participation for a group of city and county employees just north of San Francisco, I chatted with a county volunteer coordinator about her job. “It sounds like fascinating work,” I offered. “You must interact with a lot of different people on a variety of projects.” It was an interesting job, she said. “But,” she continued—lowering her voice to a near whisper—”you have to be real careful when you bring in a volunteer to help on certain jobs, that they can’t be seen as taking work from unionized employees.” She explained that her formula for placing volunteers in needed assignments had to incorporate the type of work and the time commitment. “I usually have no problem [with the unions] if I bring someone in for a couple of hours each week,” she allowed, “but I’m pushing it if it moves beyond five hours—even if the volunteer is willing to take longer hours.” She concluded: “And, of course, you’ve heard what’s happening in Petaluma with the school district?” I hadn’t.

Petaluma is one of those idyllic small cities (population 58,000) that dot Route 101 on the way north from the Golden Gate Bridge through the wine country. Most of us have seen the town on the silver screen without realizing it, as it’s been the setting for over a dozen movies from American Graffiti to Pleasantville. But Petaluma, struggling like most municipalities in California under the current fiscal crisis, has found delivering public services—from education to public safety—anything but pleasant.

The Petaluma City Schools district has trimmed millions from its budget over the last two years, as the deficit-ridden California state government has decreased its local support by 25 percent. The cuts have meant layoffs for district employees at all levels, from teachers to playground supervisors. In response, parents and concerned Petalumans have stepped forward to try to fill the non-teaching gaps, volunteering their time to maintain school services. The volunteers have worked in new roles identified by the school administration, but they’ve also stepped in to perform jobs eliminated by budget cuts. But those positions are unionized by the California School Employees’ Association (CSEA)—and that’s where the problems started.

When volunteers began to help answer phones in the office and support the school librarian at Petaluma Junior High School, CSEA Local 212 president Loretta Kruusmagi immediately objected. Representing 350 clerical and janitorial staff in the Petaluma school district, Kruusmagi betrays not the least concern for the kids her union supposedly serves when she glowers: “As far as I’m concerned, they never should have started this thing. Noon-duty people [lunchtime and playground assistants]—those are instructional assistants. We had all those positions. We don’t have them anymore, but those are our positions. Our stand is you can’t have volunteers, they can’t do our work.” Notice the possessiveness with which Kruusmagi regards these “public servants.” Nice to see that it’s “all about the kids” at the CSEA.

Like so many other public-sector unions across the country, the CSEA has proven unwilling to accept the new reality that budget shortfalls are imposing on local governments. That reality, as New York’s Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith has described it, is this: “The steady increase in the quantity and cost of public services, coupled with the needs of an aging population and public pension costs have produced a long term, structural deficit.” The Petaluma clash and others around the state are illustrating how public-sector unions work against citizens in budget-ravaged times.

The school-district leadership finds itself caught between the volunteers and the union, seeking to pacify both parents and the CSEA. Meanwhile, important positions lost to budget cuts that volunteers could handle remain unfilled. Deputy Superintendent Steve Bolman is left to quote from the union contract and labor law: “It’s not policy, this is law. [Volunteers] can’t do work ‘usually, ordinarily or regularly done by classified employees.’” For her part, Kruusmagi sounds a little sketchier on the legalities: “I can’t cite the exact thing,” she says, “but there are state rules. I believe it’s in [education] code that volunteers are not allowed at schools.”

The volunteers are rightly furious. Cathy Edmondson, the parent of a Petaluma Junior High student, and a volunteer who helps around the school office, retorted: “I guess the anger that I feel about it is, even though the union has contractual rights to what goes on, they don’t have the right to abridge my rights as a parent, volunteer, and taxpayer.” Lynn King, another parent and manager of the volunteer program, is more diplomatic: “Schools are losing personnel because of budgetary cutbacks, kids are being underserved by these budgetary cutbacks, so we are trying to do what we can.” Volunteers are continuing to work until the parties in Petaluma can work out an agreement of some kind, though it’s not clear how they will—especially when Kruusmagi says flatly, “They are not going to have volunteers at all.”

The work of volunteers in providing and supporting local services has been a hallmark of American citizenship since the nation’s founding. Alexis de Tocqueville described this characteristic most famously: “In America I encountered all sorts of associations of which, I confess, I had no idea, and I often admired the infinite art with which the inhabitants of the United States managed to fix a common goal to the efforts of many men and to get them to advance to it freely.” But Tocqueville never met Loretta Kruusmagi.

Tocqueville’s observations on America’s civic participation were based on what he saw of our natural habits and on the contextual necessity of his time: there simply weren’t governing structures to deliver many needed public services back in the 1830s, so Americans had to fall back upon themselves. As local-government budgets feel the financial squeeze, this do-it-yourself ethos is making a comeback throughout the country. CSEA’s tagline is “Essential Work. Extraordinary Workers.” No one disputes the first sentence, but in Petaluma, volunteers now seek to be the latter. What happens in Petaluma will provide a glimpse of whether public-sector unions have learned anything from the nation’s ongoing fiscal difficulties. Are they willing to be part of a collaborative solution, or does their self-interest trump all?


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