NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

No Volunteers, Please, We're Unionized

December 6, 2010

Petaluma is one of those idyllic small cities that dot Route 101 on the way north from the Golden Gate Bridge through the wine country.  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, says Pete Peterson, executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy.

  • 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 nonteaching 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, says Peterson.

  • 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...Our stand is you can't have volunteers, they can't do our work."

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.  The Petaluma clash and others around the state are illustrating how public-sector unions work against citizens in budget-ravaged times.

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?

Source: Pete Peterson, "No Volunteers, Please, We're Unionized," City Journal, November 30, 2010.

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