Potent Prison Guards Union Facing Challenges to Status Quo
A biting report on penal system, governor's call for concessions confront 'untouchable' labor group.
SACRAMENTO â€" More often than not, the union
that represents California's prison guards has won its
On election day, union-backed candidates usually have been
victorious. In the Legislature, union lobbyists have killed
bills they saw as threats. At the bargaining table, union
negotiators have gained lucrative pay and benefit packages.
Representing 31,000 current and retired prison officers,
the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. repeatedly
has proved itself to be among the most potent interest
groups in state politics.
But last week, a federal court officer landed what one top
union executive called a "sucker punch" in the form of an
85-page report by John Hagar, a special master assigned by
a federal judge to help oversee court-ordered changes at
the maximum-security Pelican Bay State Prison.
Hagar's report describes a code of silence among officers,
refers to the "long arm of CCPOA's influence over the
highest level" in the California Department of Corrections
and alleges that the union repeatedly has sought to derail
internal affairs investigations.
A "minority of rogue officers" can establish a code of
silence and "create an overall atmosphere of deceit and
corruption," the report said. "And if the minority are
supported by a powerful labor organization, and the union
as well as management condones the code of silence, the
consequences are severe."
The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. has
weathered past storms, surviving federal and state
investigations and oversight hearings in the 1990s, when
officers were accused of abuse and had shot and killed more
than 30 inmates.
But the Hagar report is an unwelcome glare for a union
entering new territory. The union has a new president, Mike
Jimenez, who took over last year from Don Novey, the
fedora-wearing union boss who took office in 1980 and built
the organization into a powerhouse. And it lost a champion
when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ousted Gov. Gray Davis in
last fall's election â€" though the union did
cushion the fall by spending no money to help Davis fend
off the historic recall.
The Republican governor is now calling on the union to make
concessions to help ease the state's budget woes. One way
moneyed interests forge political alliances â€"
donating campaign money â€" may not work with
Schwarzenegger. He has a policy against taking
contributions from public employee unions.
"He will deal forthrightly with them without any question
of any inappropriate influence," said Rob Stutzman,
Schwarzenegger's communications director. "They don't have
any influence with the governor, other than the fact that
they are a rightfully constituted bargaining unit."
The union will not be left out in the cold, however. The
governor carved out a half-hour for a "get-acquainted"
session with Jimenez in November.
Heading into the 2004 campaign, the union sits atop $2.34
million, ready to be doled to candidates who curry the
union's favor. Although Schwarzenegger won't take the
union's money, the California Republican Party is expecting
the union to make good on a pledge to give the GOP $250,000
for the 2004 election.
The union also has alliances with Schwarzenegger's friends.
It spent nearly $1 million in 1990 to help elect Gov. Pete
Wilson, one of Schwarzenegger's political mentors. Wilson
awarded an 11% raise to the union on his way out of office
in 1998. Seamlessly crossing party lines, the union spent
$2 million in direct and indirect donations to help
Democrat Davis win election in 1998, then gave him another
$1.4 million in his first term.
Robert Stern, a campaign finance expert and head of the
nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles,
called the union "untouchable."
"My guess is that he is not going to want to alienate a
group like the prison guards, and they won't want to
alienate him," Stern said.
Few elected officials disparage the union publicly. Those
who do so risk their jobs. At least, that's the perception.
The union has reacted in the past by sending five- and
six-figure donations to opposition candidates, or digging
up unpleasant facts to derail candidates who fall out of
"There is a very definite sense that if you cross them, you
may pay a price," said campaign consultant Darry Sragow,
who represents Assembly Democrats. Sragow counsels
legislators to follow their conscience. If they must
challenge the guards, he suggests that they go gently.
"It is great to have CCPOA on your side," Sragow said. "If
you can't get them on your side, it is imperative that they
not be on the other sideâ€¦. Try not to
get in their face."
These days, Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) is holding
oversight hearings, along with Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los
Angeles). On Tuesday, their committee will meet to review
Hagar's report, which the judge could ultimately refer to
federal prosecutors or use to order prison reforms. In an
interview, Speier said a "third party" relayed to her that
in the union's view, she had "crossed the line" with her
"I'm not naive," said Speier, who is contemplating running
for statewide office in 2006. "I realize that this is
taking on an interest that has had extra power in multiple
administrations of both partiesâ€¦. If
the prison guards come after me, so be it."
Union Vice President Lance Corcoran called Speier's
comments "absolutely ludicrous."
"Sen. Speier is doing what she thinks is right," Corcoran
said. "We assume she will be open-minded. If she has
already made up her mind, that is problematic."
Corcoran defended the union's right to donate to candidates
who "are willing to listen to our issues." He listed
measures the union advocates: stricter background checks
for recruits, better training in academies and peace
In the two decades since it won the right to represent
prison workers, the union also has set out to burnish the
image of correctional officers. The union funds crime
victims groups and sponsors an annual crime victims' day at
In any year, it is among the most striking of all Capitol
park demonstrations. On that day, the union and victims'
rights advocates arrange hundreds of white cardboard
coffins on the lawn outside the west steps. Victims'
families display poster-size photos of loved ones who have
been murdered. Political leaders make a point of showing
Prison officers walk, according to the union's motto, "the
toughest beat in the state." Stab-proof vests protect them
from most mortal wounds. Far more police officers have been
killed than correctional officers, 28 of whom have died in
the line of duty.
How much sway does the union have with management in the
Department of Corrections?
"They dictate basically every move any warden that I've
been associated with makes," a high-ranking Department of
Corrections official said, speaking on the condition that
he not be identified. "There's not a policy at the local or
headquarters level that isn't reviewed by CCPOA."
Their influence is "certainly good for the rank and file."
But it hampers managers' ability to run prisons
efficiently, the official said, citing one seemingly minor
provision in the latest labor contract, negotiated in late
2001 by the Davis administration and ratified in 2002 by
the state Legislature â€" with only a single no
vote. The contract stripped managers of one of the few
tools they had to limit the use of sick leave. The labor
pact permits officers to call in sick without a doctor's
note confirming the illness. With the new policy in place,
officers called in sick 500,000 more hours in 2002 than in
2001, a 27% increase.
The heavy use of sick leave by some officers forced prison
managers to require officers to work additional overtime to
cover all the posts. At least 110 prison officers used
overtime pay to make more than $100,000 in 2002. One made
more than $145,000 in 2002, records provided by the state
controller's office last year show. Altogether, the state's
correctional officers punched in $200 million worth of
overtime in 2002 â€" 25% more than in 2000.
The union's moves leading up to that contract show the
influence it had with the Davis administration. The dance
began in late 2001, before the 2002 gubernatorial election
campaign was in full swing.
Novey, then the union's president, was meeting in the
union's West Sacramento office with one of Davis' closest
aides, Michael Yamaki. As it happened, Novey's next
appointment was with former Los Angeles Mayor Richard
Riordan, then contemplating a run against Davis for
Yamaki and Riordan, seeing one another, then chatted about
golf, as Novey recalled it. But of course, the conversation
had little to do with recreation. Rather, Novey left the
impression that there was at least a possibility that the
union might endorse Riordan in the 2002 campaign.
The following week, Davis summoned Novey to a meeting to
discuss the union's contract.
Based on what Novey and others said, here's what happened:
Novey was kept waiting, seemingly grew impatient, and left.
Davis, learning that Novey had walked off, dispatched a
member of his security detail, a California Highway Patrol
officer, to bring Novey back to the governor's office. Like
many in the prison union, Novey views the CHP as a
"Can you imagine a highway patrolman stopping me?" said
Novey, who kept walking.
Then one of Davis' aides tried to mollify Novey, offering
him a gift of a dozen golf balls signed by Davis. Novey was
unimpressed: "I got signed golf balls by Reagan. Give me a
It was all part of the strategy. As the contract talks
opened, Novey was almost flippant, telling administration
officials that any smart union leader knows to wait until
an election year to negotiate labor contracts, officials
said privately at the time.
Novey could not be reached for this article. But in past
interviews, he said he had been striving for years to
attain parity with the CHP, contending that correctional
officers have a far more difficult job. In the current
contract, prison guards will gain pay parity with the
"Highway patrol gets all this candy," Novey said, then
added sarcastically: "Their job is more dangerous. They
give traffic tickets."
In the early 1980s, when Novey took control of the union,
the top pay for veteran guards was $21,000 a year. Within a
decade, the top pay was $44,676. By 2006, when the current
contract expires, the pay is expected to reach $73,248 a
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