The fatal suffocation of George Floyd with a Minneapolis policeman’s knee pressing his neck into the pavement has ignited righteous outrage about police violence around the globe.
It also has focused much-needed attention on the cozy relationship between police unions and politicians and the laws and policies that protect violence-prone officers from consequences for their acts.
The unions get what they want from local and state officials, not only legal protections but generous salaries and pension benefits. The politicians also get what they want, campaign funds and union endorsements testifying to their crime-fighting credentials.
That mutual backscratching has been very evident in California in the 45 years since then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed collective bargaining legislation for public employees. Police unions have had virtual veto power over anything they considered to be adverse to their interests.
The blue wall, as one might term it, has cracked a little in the last couple of years. Now, in the wake of Floyd’s outrageous death, politicians are scrambling to sever their financial and political ties to police unions, to enact more much-needed reforms, such as lifting state certification of officers who are fired for egregious conduct, and to redefine policing in the 21st century.
Fundamentally, the political clout that police unions have wielded in California for decades is no different from what other public employee unions have done. Universally, they seek more job security and increases in pay and fringe benefits for their members, and do so by supporting politicians who will deliver the goods, regardless of how it impacts the larger public.
If, therefore, we condemn the unhealthy relationship between police unions and politicians, we should subject other public employee unions to the same critical scrutiny.
Take, for instance, what happened last week as the Legislature was adopting a flurry of “trailer bills” to the state budget.
These bills, drafted secretly and enacted quickly, are often used as vehicles to pass major policy changes that would be difficult to make if they had to go through the formal legislative processes.
The state’s powerful education unions, led by the California Teachers Association, greatly benefit from three provisions in the “omnibus education trailer bill.” One prohibits school districts from laying off teachers, the second places a de facto cap on charter school enrollments, and a third dilutes transparency and accountability for educational outcomes.
The union-backed no-layoff decree was forced on school districts, over their objections, as a condition of maintaining budget levels despite the state’s multi-billion-dollar deficit.
That funding also ignores districts’ losses of students due to COVID-19 shutdowns by basing state school aid in 2020-21 on pre-pandemic levels of attendance. It’s a windfall to school systems experiencing enrollment declines, but freezes funds for those seeing growth — particularly charter schools. Thus, it furthers school unions’ long-standing campaign to kneecap charter school expansion.
The third questionable trailer bill provision sets aside, at least temporarily, the Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs) that are supposed to guide expenditures of funds meant to upgrade the academic performances of poor and English-learner students. Instead districts now will employ “continuity and attendance plans” that are yet to be defined.
LCAPs were often ill-written and/or ignored but their existence was another way for parents and school reformers to challenge the educational status quo. Now that window into transparency and accountability is being closed.
Police unions have often blocked accountability for violent acts. Education unions flex their muscle to stifle competition and avoid accountability for how schools treat their neediest pupils.
The outcomes of both damage the larger society.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.