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Conan the Warden

Schwarzenegger takes a broad and mighty swipe at the state's powerful prison guards union.

September 27, 2007

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's approach to leadership is often a little too "Kindergarten Cop" -- a tough guy so buffeted by the competing bawls of interest groups, legislators and even his own diverse team of advisors that he's left paralyzed and ineffective. When it comes to the state's prison guards, though, he's starting to act a lot more like "Conan the Barbarian." To which we can only say: Great performance, governor.

The guards have been working without a contract since July 2006, and the bitter negotiations broke down completely last month. Then, at 2 a.m. on the last day of the legislative session, Sept. 12, one of the guards' legislative pawns introduced a bill guaranteeing them a generous pay raise. It was a sneaky attempt to subvert the collective-bargaining process that would have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars this fiscal year. Fortunately, it failed.

Schwarzenegger's response last week was a sneaky move of his own, one so aggressive that it seemed he'd been reviewing his old swords-and-sandals movies for tips on how to respond to a bully. His administration invoked a never-used law allowing it to declare that the state had made its "last, best and final offer" on the guards' contract, so it could set terms without an agreement from the union.

The state is still offering guards a reasonable raise, amounting to 15% over three years. But it aims to rectify some of the absurd concessions that it made in past contract talks. For example, prison managers can't question guards' sick-leave claims, which has led to a huge increase in sick-leave payments, and they must consult the union on such basic decisions as determining which days inmates can visit medical clinics. The union can also stall unpopular management moves by filing frivolous grievances that have to be worked out by arbitrators.

The Schwarzenegger administration intends to put more control over prison operations in the hands of wardens, though its unconventional resolution of the contract dispute will undoubtedly face a legal challenge.

California's prison guards aren't solely to blame for the overcrowded, dangerous mess our corrections system has become; lack of attention from politicians, poor management, serious staffing shortages and irresponsible get-tough-on-crime measures approved by voters also played big roles. But fixing the problems will be nearly impossible unless administrators have free rein to make needed reforms, many of which are unpopular with the union. Now that Schwarzenegger is going Conan on the guards, maybe he can point his broadsword at the legislators standing in the way of efforts to fix outdated parole and sentencing rules.

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