State Senators Take On Guards
State Senate Democrats, ending years of unwavering support for California’s politically potent prison guards’ union, vowed Tuesday to block a promised 11.3% raise for the state’s 31,000 correctional officers.
Since late fall, the Schwarzenegger administration has been pressing the union, without much success, to return a portion of the raise scheduled for July 1 to ease the state’s budget woes.
But Tuesday, a majority of Senate Democrats said they have enough votes to nix the raise and were prepared to force the union to make concessions.
The senators’ willingness to take on the union signals a remarkable turn of fortunes for the California Correctional Peace Officers’ Assn., which has grown over the past two decades into one of the most influential forces in state politics.
With state funds increasingly scarce, many Democrats are now unwilling to champion the cause of the union -- especially at a time when the sprawling prison system is under attack for mismanagement, a “code of silence” among some guards and alleged abuse of inmates.
“The Department of Corrections is an out-of-control spending machine,” said Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), an outspoken critic of the state prison system. She was joined by 16 other Senate Democrats in signing a letter stating their intention not to approve the raise.
“It’s time to return to the bargaining table,” Speier said.
The move, announced at a Capitol news conference, infuriated union leaders. Delaying the promised pay hike, they warned, would be a blow to members.
“I believe public safety is jeopardized when you’ve got a work force that is demoralized by the Legislature ... basically telling them they are not worth what they are paid,” said Executive Vice President Lance Corcoran.
He warned his union could not control how prison guards would react to a broken promise: “It’s going to be a long, hot summer.”
Such remarks angered the senators.
“As public officials, we can’t operate under threats,” said Sen. Jack Scott (D-Altadena). “The money involved is frankly out of line, given the fiscal state of California.”
The five-year contract was approved in 2002, but because the state cannot commit to increase spending for more than one year at a time, two-thirds of the Legislature must approve every new raise. The union would not get the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate with these 17 Democrats in opposition.
“It’s one more good piece of evidence the political landscape has changed dramatically in California,” said Robert Waste, a professor of public policy at Cal State Sacramento. “They were a third rail. It was oppose them and you die.”
Schwarzenegger and other Republicans want to force contract renegotiations with all the state’s employee unions, but Democrats have not endorsed such a far-reaching approach.
Guards were at the bottom of the heap in terms of respect and pay among law enforcement officers two decades ago, earning $21,000 a year in 1982. But under the leadership of the union’s legendary former president, Don Novey, the officers’ clout, stature and benefits steadily increased.
The guards’ ascent peaked when then-Gov. Gray Davis signed a five-year contract in 2002 granting them raises of up to 37% over the life of the agreement. Under the deal, a veteran correctional officer stands to make $73,000 annually by 2006. Among other perks, it permits guards to retire at age 50 with 90% of their pay.
Backed by one of the group’s most loyal allies, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), the contract received only one no vote in the Legislature: Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks).
Now the state faces an annual bill of $250 million to cover the part of the contract scheduled to take effect July 1 alone. And many of the lawmakers who supported the deal say it was a big mistake.
“When in government and politics we find ourselves off course, we take corrective action,” said Sen. Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), who voted for the contract in 2002.
The Schwarzenegger administration was pleased Tuesday. “We very much appreciate the legislative support,” said Press Secretary Margita Thompson.
Lawmakers and administration officials are hoping the governor can strike a deal with the union before July 1 to avert a showdown. But if that does not happen, the senators say they are prepared to venture into uncharted legal territory by stopping the promised raise from taking effect. It would be the first time for such an action since the state began collective bargaining in the mid-1970s.
“It has never happened before,” said Todd Clark, an expert on public employee relations at the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office. He said that if the raise is blocked, the union must go back to the negotiating table. If no progress is made there, the union can file a complaint with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board.
“We take very seriously and not lightly collective bargaining,” said Sen. Dede Alpert (D-San Diego). “We are asking everyone to do things differently and make sacrifices.”
Over the last decade, the union has spent more than $14 million on state election campaigns, supporting Democrats and Republicans alike. Union leaders also have spread fear among legislators by working successfully to defeat those who opposed their agenda.
With the election last year of Schwarzenegger, however, things began to change for the union. The governor has refused its campaign contributions, and he pushed through some prison reforms unpopular with some union leaders.
An assortment of scandals that have rippled through the adult and juvenile prison systems added to the union’s misfortunes. Given such a climate, analysts say legislators may view it as an ideal time to admit the contract’s raises were too generous and take a stand against the association.
“I think this is a case where you’ve got guards accused of misconduct in the prisons and people feeling uncomfortable rewarding them with a big raise,” said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University. “Everybody has egg on their faces, so they’re naturally turning on those who are already taking the heat.”
Burton, a staunch supporter of the union, said it was unfair for it to be “singled out because of some problems in the prisons.”
“If it’s about money, then let’s make it about money and look at all the contracts, not just the CCPOA’s,” he said.
Republicans in the Senate agree with that approach.
“Democrats are aiming at this one, but I think you have to look at all of the contracts,” said Senate Republican leader Dick Ackerman of Tustin. “They all have the same problems, they all have the same excesses.”
The senators who signed the letter said that is not the case. They note that prison guards are getting a much bigger increase than other groups.
One name missing from the letter is Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who is chairwoman of an oversight committee on prisons.
“I’m not interested in union busting. I’m not interested in threatening,” Romero said. “I think there are stronger ways we can go to preserve collective bargaining and get the savings we want.”
Corcoran warned that the ultimatum from the 17 senators could have unintended consequences.
“Every state employee ought to be concerned at this point,” he said. He added that the message state lawmakers are sending is, “If we change our mind, no problem, we just take out the funding and you guys are forced back to the table.”
“We are going to do everything we can,” he said, “whether it is legal action or job action, to protect our interest.”