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California public sector union asks for dramatic 43% raise at the wrong time

California’s public-employee unions hold an iron grip on the Legislature, which is why — as any perusal of the Transparent California website shows — government salaries and pensions here have reached almost unimaginable levels. But not all unions wield equal clout, so it’s been enlightening watching one particular union continually fail to dramatically boost its members’ wages.

Back in February, members of the California Association of Professional Scientists — a union that represents scientists in the state’s myriad regulatory agencies — overwhelmingly rejected Gov. Gavin Newsom’s offer to boost pay by 2% to 4%. The union says their pay, which averages $7,400 a month plus generous benefits, lags state engineers and federal scientists by 40%.

Had the union been reasonable, negotiations might have been fruitful. The union demanded raises of up to 43% to address the so-called disparities. It has been in the midst of a three-year bargaining dispute. As the Sacramento Bee reports, the union has been calling for dramatic pay increases since a 2005 contract increased engineer salaries. Rank-and-file scientists are still seething over a 2014 court case that boosted pay for supervisors, but not scientists.

Now, the Legislature is intervening.

Last week, the Assembly Appropriations Committee approved Assembly Bill 1677, which directs the union-friendly UC Berkeley Labor Center to study this particular bargaining unit’s salary structure.

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The study won’t be complete until next April and its finding won’t be binding on state negotiators.

At some point, the union might want to cut its losses and accept a deal.

This isn’t exactly the best time to be pushing for 435 raises given that California is facing a $31.5-billion budget deficit. California state employees, including its scientists, perform some important tasks but they earn enviable pay and benefits packages.

This one relatively small labor dispute speaks volumes about Capitol politics and the way one bargaining unit’s pay creates an upward ratchet for other bargaining units.

Unions don’t always win, but it’s time for the state to base all of its pay levels more on market conditions and less on union power.

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