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Blame council, not unions, for Tacoma’s budget crisis

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Dec. 25, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
December 23, 2011 6:19 pm

This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.

Give the Tacoma’s public unions credit: They’re stepping up to help soften a budget disaster created largely by their bosses.

Last Tuesday, the leader of Joint Labor – a union coalition – complained loudly that city officials weren’t negotiating job-saving contract concessions with anyone beyond Tacoma’s police and firefighters.

“Not once,” said Alice Phillips, “has the City of Tacoma come to Joint Labor or Local 483 and said, ‘Would you take a reduction in wages? Would you take furloughs?’”

Despite the angry tone, that appears to be a public offer to give up compensation to avert some of the 167 layoffs the city now faces as a result of a “surprise” budget shortfall. Joint Labor may be softening under duress, but it’s softening. Some unions in similar circumstances wouldn’t give up a dime from their hard-bargained contracts, even if scores of their members lost their jobs.

This seems to be complicated dispute. The city’s labor negotiator, John Dryer, says he’s been talking with the unions all along; Phillips says the administration has been chiefly interested in dealing with the police and firefighters, who’d have to absorb roughly 100 of the proposed layoffs.

The Tacoma City Council gave the public safety unions something it didn’t give the others: 30 days to work out contract concessions to save police and firefighter positions.

For everyone else, the calendar marches relentlessly forward. On New Year’s Day, one week from now, the targeted non-firefighters and non-police officers will be out in the cold. The City Council has scheduled a meeting to deal with their situation – on Jan. 10, after the layoffs take effect.

All the city unions might be blamed for obtuseness. The current budget was balanced in part on the assumption that they would accept an across-the-board pay freeze and give up some of their existing compensation. They refused to fulfill that dubious prophecy.

Regardless, unions don’t write their own contracts. Everything they get is given to them at the bargaining table. The job of their leaders is to negotiate the best deal possible for the rank-and-file. Nor do they necessarily trust administrators’ claims about expected revenues and expenses.

Ultimately, responsibility for this debacle all falls back on the City Council, eight of whose nine members bought into former City Manager Eric Anderson’s bizarrely optimistic expectations about sales tax revenue and union docility. Council members and their predecessors also presided over round after round of salary and benefit increases that saddled the city government with exceptionally high overhead costs.

Many city employees now stand to suffer from the council’s recent bout of magical thinking. All of the unions appear open to givebacks that could reduce that suffering. They may be late in arriving, but thank heaven they’re at the table.

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