Government Unions Stall San Diego Pension Reform

Collective bargaining privileges are facilitating the San Diego Municipal Employee Association’s (MEA) ability to wreak havoc over voter-approved pension reform. These privileges elevate union special interest over the public’s interest in maintaining fiscal solvency.

In June 5 elections, San Diego voters overwhelmingly supported ballot measure Proposition B, which reforms city employees unsustainable pensions needed to avoid bankruptcy. The initiative gained ballot access after 116,000 signatures were collected. It then passed with 66 percent approval.

The pension reform requires new city employees (except police) to switch to 401(k) plans, instead of a defined-benefit plan, in order to limit the city’s contributions and liability to pensions. Plus, government workers will gain certainty over their retirements, an improvement over a pension fund that depends on government policy. In addition, the measure puts a five-year freeze on pension payout amounts to workers. The city’s independent budget analyst estimated savings to be $950 million over 30 years.

The public championed the initiative due to the San Diego pension system’s nearly $2.2 billion deficit, which was caused by collective bargaining agreements that increased pension benefits without appropriate increases in funding. Yet throughout Prop B’s campaign, MEA continues to thwart the will of the voters with legal challenges to invalidate enacting Prop B.

Prior to the election, MEA filed a complaint to the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) to forbid Prop B from appearing on the ballot. PERB, which operates with similar pro-union bias as the National Labor Relations Board, filed suit on behalf of MEA asking for a court injunction. The judge refused PERB’s request.

Now that Prop B passed, MEA is challenging the validity of the pension reform on different grounds. The San Francisco Chronicle reports, “unions contended the measure was actually the brainchild of San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, who, with the help of other city officials, allegedly used private citizens as fronts to dodge the city’s obligations to its workers.”

The city’s obligation, which is stymieing pension reform, is governed by California labor law, which requires municipalities to meet and confer (non-binding negotiations) with unions before enacting legislation that affect union member benefits. Even when cities are in severe financial distress, government union collective bargaining power and inane protocol accompanying it can hold taxpayers hostage. San Diego’s duty to hear MEA’s demands is the loophole needed to postpone enacting Prop B.

A recent ruling from California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal recognized the union’s complaint, declaring it had “some evidence” in its allegations against the mayor, which sent the lawsuit to PERB to settle the union’s claims. Any PERB decision will be subject to court review, further delaying the desperately crucial cost-savings Prop B would otherwise be generating.

The privilege of collective bargaining in the government sector is unsustainable. It greases the wheels for unions to sit on both sides of the negotiating table where union bosses can use their immense political influence to gain lavish contracts. In California, government unions’ capacity to manipulate public policy has gone too far. MEA’s power over whether or not Prop B is enacted is the difference between nearly $1 billion or nothing to taxpayers. If government collective bargaining privileges are not rescinded, California’s current political system of rewarding special interests at the expense of the taxpayer will further undermine the state’s financial stability.