The California correctional officers’ union (CCPOA) has been guarding more than just prison inmates. As one of the most influential special interest groups in the state, it has secured and steadfastly held onto some of the highest salaries and benefits awarded to state employees.
CCPOA maintains an annual operating budget of over $23 million. With that sum, it makes contributions to ballot initiatives, lobbying efforts, and political campaigns.
CCPOA is best known for its support of ballot initiatives that keep prison populations high. In 1994, CCPOA spent $101,000 on the Three Strikes Initiative, making it the second largest donor to that campaign. That proposition passed with a 72% majority. In 2008, CCPOA spent $1 million against Proposition 5, helping to defeat an initiative that would have emphasized treatment over incarceration for non-violent drug offenders.
Flexing its Political Muscle
According to FollowTheMoney.org, during the 2010 election, CCPOA spent $1.9 million in contributions and independent expenditures against Meg Whitman and for Governor Brown. This outlay ranked the union well within the Governor’s top 10 supporters.
In an open letter to members after the election, CCPOA Executive VP Chuck Alexander wrote: “Now that the campaign is over we can begin talking with Governor-elect Brown and his team about what it will take to better our working conditions.”
Notwithstanding its steadfast support of Governor Brown, CCPOA distributes campaign contributions to and supports legislators across both parties. In the last ten years, CCPOA has given money to every current state senator. During the same period, it gave slightly more to Republican senators overall, a reversal of overall union giving, which favored Democrats 9 to 1 in 2010. And in the 2010 election, 104 of the 107 candidates endorsed by CCPOA won election.
CCPOA negotiated a collective bargaining agreement that covered the union from 2001 to 2006. The agreement secured a 34% raise in base pay for correctional officers over those five years, far ahead of most other state employees. In 2010, the average California prison guard salary was $72,400, over 60% higher than the national average – $44,230. Counting overtime pay, California prison guard salaries routinely surpass $100,000.
When the union’s collective bargaining agreement expired in 2006, the Schwarzenegger administration and CCPOA could not agree on a contract. Union members received no pay raises until 2011, when the Brown administration reached an agreement on a 2-year contract with CCPOA. The administration presented the contract as a cost saver, largely because it increased employee contributions to their pensions.
Although it marginally lowered overall costs in 2011, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) estimated that the contract would increase annual correctional officer personnel costs by $350 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year. Given the $3.2 billion personnel costs for correctional officers, that amounts to an expenditure increase of more than 10%. The increase is largely attributable to a 4% base pay raise, increased state contributions toward healthcare coverage, and a policy that allows prison guards to cash out unused vacation time.
Given differences in cost of living and different demands placed on guards in different states, the most accurate evaluation of compensation might focus on whether the compensation level allows the department to maintain its desired staff levels. If the department has no trouble filling positions – if hiring rates are consistently higher than attrition rates – this suggests that compensation is adequate.
In February 2008, based on the comparison of hiring rates and guard attrition (1,575 vs. 600 respectively), the LAO concluded that "the data suggest that current [prison guard] compensation levels are sufficient, if not more than sufficient, for the state to meet its staffing needs."
CCPOA’s upcoming raise should also be considered in the context of the state’s General Fund budget, which also funds other departments’ salaries and services. Absent state revenue increases, raising prison guard compensation necessarily means trimming provisions for other state employees and services. Citing this, the LAO tentatively recommended rejecting the employee contracts negotiated in early 2011. Ignoring the recommendation, the California Legislature approved the contracts. Three months later, the Governor and the Legislature passed a budget that issued major cuts to K-12 and higher education.
Today, as Sacramento finds itself facing difficult budget decisions, one must ask: how effectively can the Governor defend the state’s varied interests when negotiating with one of his largest and most influential political supporters?