Who Brought Public Employee Unions To California?

George Skelton, the Los Angeles Times' Sacramento sage, today asked this very interesting question: Would Ronald Reagan pass muster with today's Tea Party phenomenon?

Skelton notes that because many moderates left their respective political parties and became independents over the past decades, today's parties have been left with extreme ideologues.

That left me wondering about something I've noticed Orange County GOP Chairman Scott Baugh remark about at several party gatherings.

During his pep talks to the troops, Baugh almost always makes sure to mention that Jerry Brown brought public employee unions to California. So why, he argues, bring Brown back for a return engagement as governor?

It's a great campaign line. Except when I check the historical record, I remember that the Meyers Milias Brown Act - which gave public employees collective bargaining rights - was enacted in 1968.

California's governor that year was Ronald Reagan, who was elected to his first term in 1966.

While people always seem to want to morph Reagan into their own historical uses (he was pro-labor due to his service on the screen actors guild, he was anti-labor because of the 1981 air traffic controllers strike), I've worked long enough as a reporter to know that history is almost always wrong.

After reading the Skelton piece, I decided to call up former Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon, who penned several books on Reagan and covered him for years.

Cannon agreed that Reagan's relationship with labor was complicated but noted it was very different than today's Republican approach.

"He didn't like the fact that the unions always supported the Democrats, but it wasn't a hostile relationship," Cannon said. "I never heard Reagan, in all the interviews, say those ‘damn unions."

In fact, Cannon notes that Reagan "was always very proud of the fact he got working class support," estimating that Reagan garnered as much as one-third of union households.

And don't forget the support that the labor movement gave Reagan in killing off the Soviet Union...those Polish unions started the wave that ended the dominance of the Kremlin, and Cannon notes that Reagan had a close relationship with U.S. labor leaders who were crucial in steering support to their counterparts in Eastern Europe.

Reagan's relationship with organized labor shows how in past decades unions cut across American life in a way they don't today. Then, unions largely represented people who earned their living with their hands. These days, the only unions that are growing in strength are those that represent government workers.

That's why, Cannon figures, you don't see more working class Republican candidates.

"There's no real motive today for Republicans to cultivate union members. That whole thing has been kind of lost."

Instead, the Republican Party has made attacking public employee unions central to its platform.

The dynamic has been front and center in the race for a vacant slot on the county board of supervisors. The leading candidate - Fullerton City Councilman Shawn Nelson - has made public sector pensions a central issue. And local labor unions -such as the Orange County Employees Association and the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs - have spent more than $1 million battling Nelson's campaign.

Fascinating how things change. And it makes me wonder, how do you think Reagan would have responded to Baugh's edict forbidding any Republican candidates to accept labor money?



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