By David Siders
Published: Sunday, Jul. 25, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Jul. 25, 2010 – 1:19 am
In summer 1978, 2,000 state workers rallied for a pay raise at the Capitol, shouting “Down with Brown” and hurling boos and catcalls as then-Gov. Jerry Brown addressed them from the stage.
Three months later, East Bay labor leaders refused to let Brown speak at their Labor Day picnic, and California’s largest state employees group publicly opposed his re-election bid. The executive secretary of the state AFL-CIO accused Brown of “leading a lynch mob against government workers.”
This year, public employee unions back Brown and are running separate campaigns of their own to help his latest gubernatorial bid. But in his two terms as governor and, more recently, as mayor of Oakland, Brown was not the reliable champion of labor he suggests he is today, much less the union hand depicted by Meg Whitman, the Republican nominee.
“I sat across from him at the table,” said Steve Bristow, former president of a Service Employees International Union local that protested furloughs and other spending cuts in Oakland in 2002 and 2003. “He wore (me) out.”
Like many politicians, Brown has seen his relationship with labor fluctuate, influenced less by ideology than by the state of the economy and public sentiment toward government spending. Labor leaders today believe public employee unions will be treated better by Brown than by Whitman, and rhetoric from both campaigns supports that view. But Brown’s history with public employees suggests that, if elected, he might at times disappoint them.
‘Who’s going to pay?’
The nation was emerging from a recession when Brown became governor in 1975, and he proposed capping raises for state employees at 10 percent. The California State Employees Association, which wanted 15 percent, depicted Brown on a Christmas card telling Santa Claus, “It’s fine to wish everybody a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. But is it realistic? And who’s going to pay for it?”
Three years later, with the passage of Proposition 13 straining state finances, Brown proposed a wage freeze. At a rally that year, William M. Bennett, then president of the state Board of Equalization, told state workers, “We have the right to demand that this governor remember who elected him.”
One of the issues on which unions found an advocate in Brown was collective bargaining. The subject has become a talking point for both sides in the current campaign.
In a recent TV ad, Whitman blames Brown for “big pensions for state employees,” referring to the extension of collective bargaining rights to state workers in 1977. Though it wasn’t until after a benefits upgrade in 1999 that pension costs soared, the measure taken by Brown and the Legislature was significant, improving employees’ ability to negotiate and strengthening the stature of employee unions in state politics.
While Brown trumpeted the measure in a speech to SEIU members in March, Whitman criticized the legislation and has vowed to “take on the unions” and cut the state government work force.
Brown himself was responsible for reducing 3,000 jobs at the state Department of Transportation, including layoffs.
David Carnevale, a professor emeritus of mediation, conflict and resolution at the University of Oklahoma, was a director of field operations for CSEA when Brown was governor. Brown was empathetic, if not always pragmatic, Carnevale said.
“One time we went over to talk about layoffs in Caltrans, which was a big issue for us, and he started talking to us about (how) we didn’t really need to be driving on roads, that the future was coming, and the information revolution, and on and on and on,” Carnevale said.
“The issue to him wasn’t whether or not there were layoffs. It was whether or not we were going to embrace technology. But the issue for us, being in the room, was layoffs. So you’d have to bring him back to more practical, pragmatic concerns.”
Labor relationship sours
Following his re-election in 1978, Brown’s relationship with state workers further soured. In his second inaugural address, in January 1979, he sounded more like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – even Whitman – than he does himself today.
Brown proposed a billion-dollar tax cut and the elimination of 5,000 government jobs, and he endorsed a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget.
“Government, no less than the individual, must live within limits,” Brown said. “It is time to bring our accounts into balance.”
Former Gov. Gray Davis, Brown’s chief of staff at the time, said of Brown’s positions in a recent interview: “Those are not actions of people who are in the pockets of special interests.”
In pay disputes that followed, California Highway Patrol officers called in sick and state water project employees walked off their jobs. When Brown vetoed a 14.5 percent pay raise for state employees, the Legislature overrode him, something it has done to a governor only four times since 1946.
Marty Morgenstern, Brown’s chief labor negotiator at the time, said Brown’s relationship with labor was “up and down.”
Morgenstern, who became director of the state Department of Personnel Administration under Davis, said, “We allowed collective bargaining, but then bargained tough.”
Brown did make some concessions. In 1980, for example, he agreed to a 10 percent pension increase for about 100,000 retired state workers and school employees, and a 10.5 percent pay and benefits hike for current state workers.
Labor costs an issue
This year, the state budget crisis has focused attention on the cost of labor. Pension overhaul and other compensation-related issues likely will continue to be a major factor when either Brown or Whitman takes office next year.
Morgenstern and Carnevale said that, in the current economic climate, they expect Brown would negotiate as he did in the immediate aftermath of Proposition 13.
“What you’ve got happening now is almost what happened to us then,” Carnevale said. “It’s hard to sit down with a governor and say, ‘Give us some things.’ ”
Morgenstern said, “I think he’ll be responsible, fair. But we’re in very difficult circumstances right now, and it’s not going to be a time where the public employees are going to be winning great benefits, because we have a fiscal crisis.”
But former Senate Republican leader Bill Campbell, who was in office when Brown was governor, said state employee unions were less influential in the 1970s and 1980s than they are today. As a result, he said, it would be more difficult politically for Brown to cross them.
“I think it’s going to be hard for any Democrat to go against the unions. They almost have to be there because of, not only the money, but because of the people on the street getting out the vote on Election Day,” Campbell said. “He has that dependency, whether he wants it or not.”
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