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Public unions can spare themselves the backlash

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Feb. 19, 2011 at 5:53 pm with 5 Comments »
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.

Leave a comment Comments → 5
  1. Votetherock says:

    Freddie Union shows us their Fannie……..Mae.

  2. PumainTacoma says:

    Public Employees are paid by taxpayers. There is no reason for them to have unions. If they don’t like their bosses they can vote them out. There is no inherit right to unionize.

    The public union employees loss credibility when they griped about not being paid at par with the private sector which was severely tainted in their study especially given the number of hours they work per day 7 hours and then their lucrative benefits. Incredible, the public union was paying everyone inflated salaries. So now that salaries in the private sector have gone flat, and there are no companies in the region that has pension plans HELLO, nor 100% covered health care costs and their salaries are decreasing, the public sector unions suddenly don’t want to take the medicine dealt to everyone else in society!!!! So much for shared sacrifice.

    So I say STAY OUT OF MY WALLET. Go back to working like the rest of us, 40-60 hour weeks without overtime for these college grads and none of this 7 hour work day with an hour lunch break crap. Many county employees come in at 9am and leave at 3pm with an hour break, I know.

    The awakening has come for these public employees and that is it is time for you to sacrifice like the rest of the working public!

  3. fbergford says:

    FDR says this about Public Employee Unions…

    “The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote in 1937 to the head of the National Federation of Federal Employees. In the private sector, organized employees and the employer meet across the bargaining table as (theoretical) equals. But in the public sector, said FDR, “the employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress.” Allowing public-employee unions to engage in collective bargaining would mean opening the door to the manipulation of government policy by a privileged private interest.”

  4. Public sector unions and the Democratic Party… agreeable twin brothers at a “Dare-To-Be-Great” party…..using other people’s ( our ) money.

    I”m a retired private sector union employee…we still must pay heavy health care premiums and our pensions are nowhere near our currently active employee’s…and even farther away by percentage, than ANY public sector retiree’s. Those who do understand the bigger picture do not necessarily vote “lockstep” for Democrats…for a variety of reasons.

    Athens is to Wisconsin as Madison is to Greece…..

    Time to check the map, calender and look your kids in the eye as you ask for an another advance on your “allowance”…

    BTW- Asking a “doctor” for an indefinite “hall pass” is as cowardly as the elected hiding away from the work they were assigned to publicly address…

  5. Some of the most profligate spenders in the public sector are avowed Republicans. The tone-deafness of many union leaders and members in the face of the current economy is not surprising given that they’ve gotten away with contracts having automatic step pay increases every 12 months just for sticking around, as mentioned, with COLA pay increases in addition. Virtually everyone, therefore, makes it to the top of their pay grade, performing or barely. This is the practice in desperate need of an overhaul, and the timing may finally be right. Not only is it inflationary to retain it, but it’s demotivating to the best performers, who see those barely performing be paid thousands more for less. They’re typically stuck unless they get out quickly, for private sector employers are hesitant to even interview them, even less nowadays. By restructuring compensation to reward the best, such as anything more than a COLA only for the best performers, only those folks reach the top of their pay grades, easier road to firing people, etc., I think we’ll find that fewer staff are needed due to the increased productivity. Changing budgeting rules away from “use or lose it” would help as well as making it more difficult to add staff vs. being able to do so whenever existing staff essentially refuses to do more. By the way, pensions aren’t a bad thing, but they are also going away in the public sector, one of the current ones is a combination of pension and 401-k, with no matching (that’s frowned upon for the public sector).

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