Who needs collective bargaining if you’ve got legislators in your pocket?

When they can’t win favorable new deals from state legislatures, unions are adept at persuading lawmakers to protect the old ones, including when they’ve expired. In states like California, New Hampshire, and New York, government unions have won passage in the legislature of so-called “evergreen” clauses, which require old union contracts to remain in force until new agreements are reached. Such clauses give unions incentives to reject concessions during tough times because they can keep their old contracts active, sometimes with automatic pay increases. Last year in California, public unions used the evergreen clause of the Dills Act, which grants collective bargaining rights to state workers, to resist proposed changes to work rules. (The state’s Democrat-controlled legislature had the power to override the evergreen clause but sided with the unions.) New York’s evergreen clause, known as the Triborough Amendment, lets union members drag their feet on contract negotiations while their annual seniority-pay increases keep kicking in. So even if Governor Andrew Cuomo manages to freeze state workers’ pay this year, as he has suggested, taxpayers will still be on the hook for $140 million in seniority-pay hikes.

A major problem with state-enacted evergreen laws is that they often tie the hands of municipalities seeking labor savings. An evergreen law passed in New Hampshire in 2008 made it difficult for towns and school districts to extract concessions from unions once the national recession began. Responding to complaints from local officials, the new Republican-controlled state legislature repealed the law earlier this year. But such end runs around local officials have become common. In many localities across the country, everything from teacher salaries to fringe benefits and teacher-evaluation systems is now determined at the state level, not by local discretion.