The State Worker

Chronicling civil-service life for California state workers

October 4, 2013
Jerry Brown sues U.S. Labor Department over pension law

As he announced last month, Gov. Jerry Brown today sued the U.S. Department of Labor over its ruling that California's new pension-reform law violates mass-transit workers' collective bargaining rights.

The Sacramento Regional Transit District joined Brown's Department of Transportation as a party to the complaint which seeks to overturn federal decisions that have withheld $54 million from the Sacramento district, including $14 million for light rail construction to Elk Grove that cannot be recovered.

A 1964 law requires that the Labor Department certify agencies are preserving their employees' collective representation as a condition of receiving federal mass-transit grants.

Federal authorities started looking at whether that law and the California Public Employees Pension Reform Act (PEPRA) conflicted after several mass-transit unions filed objections. For nearly a year, roughly 80 agencies throughout California faced the real possibility that complying with the pension law would sink their grant applications worth a combined $1.6 billion over one year, and millions of dollars more beyond that.

After months of intense talks between state and federal officials, Brown and Department of Labor Secretary Thomas Perez struck a deal: Temporarily exempt some 20,000 mass-transit employees from from PEPRA to keep the federal funds flowing while the courts decide on the interplay of state pension and federal grant law.

Brown today signed the bill to exempt mass-transit workers and filed the complaint, which makes a "camel's nose" argument:

If allowed to stand, the practical affect of the Department's conclusion (that PEPRA abridges collective bargaining rights and that the only valid pension changes are those made at the bargaining table) would be to prevent state legislatures from amending any law that affects the employment terms of transit workers.

Caltrans and Sacramento Regional Transit District v. U.S. Department of Labor

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About The State Worker

Jon Ortiz The Author

Jon Ortiz launched The State Worker blog and a companion column in 2008 to cover state government from the perspective of California government employees. Every day he filters the news through a single question: "What does this mean for state workers?" Join Ortiz for updates and debate on state pay, benefits, pensions, contracts and jobs. Contact him at (916) 321-1043 and at


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