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Public unions can spare themselves the backlash

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Feb. 19, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
February 18, 2011 5:56 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Political drama doesn’t get much richer than what’s unfolded in Wisconsin the last few days.

Democrats fleeing the state. Republicans dispatching state troopers to catch their leader. Tens of thousands of demonstrators mobbing the Capitol.

Behind it is a dead serious issue: the extraordinary power public unions have exercised over government budgets.

In Wisconsin, the backlash against government unions has taken the form of a GOP drive to repeal collective bargaining for most public-sector employees. Similar drives are happening in other states where Republicans recently won governorships and gained control over legislatures.

This would not be happening if the unions had the support of the public. Many of those unions have forfeited that support by clinging to lush compensation packages at a time when workers in the private sector – including union members – are enduring the toughest economy in generations. A time when public services are being scaled back ruthlessly while generous labor contracts have continued on autopilot.

Too many examples are found in Pierce County. Although the cost of living has been flat, some union leaders have adamantly rejected pleas to reopen their contracts to reduce “cost-of-living” raises that considerably exceed the actual rate of inflation.

County workers saw their compensation increase by 23 percent between 2005 and 2009, when their private sectors saw 14 percent. They’re doing quite well. Yet their leaders last year refused a request to roll back another round of raises, though the rollback would have helped spare county services.

Voters recently rejected Pierce Transit’s proposal to increase its share of the sales tax by 50 percent. One factor was the bus drivers’ union’s refusal to forgo its latest 4 percent “cost-of-living” increase.

It now appears that Tacoma’s unions are rejecting the City Council’s proposal to suspend $1.7 million worth of “step increases” – raises passed out to employees just for sticking around.

Not all public unions have been so conspicuously focused on keeping the raises coming. Some have recognized economic reality and adjusted their expectations accordingly. The Seattle firefighters have agreed two years in a row to pass up raises guaranteed by their contracts.

The situation highlights crucial distinctions between public unions and their counterparts in the private sector.

Public unions, for example, help elect their own bosses, routinely channeling large campaign donations to candidates who wind up sitting across from them at the bargaining table. Those “bosses” have little to lose by spending other people’s money.

Public unions also know their employers – government agencies – are reliably funded by tax revenues. The fire department won’t go out of business if the benefits get too fat.

Public employees have an absolute constitutional right to unionize. But the generous deals many of them have won from compliant politicians argue for more flexibility in times as hard as these – such as not insisting on COLAs that have no relationship to economic reality.

As the backlash in other states is demonstrating, trees that don’t bend will sometimes break.

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