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DOCUMENTS


The Tentacle


February 23, 2011

Bargaining for The Collective Interest

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Governors across America are faced with the worst possible scenario. Can they save their governments from certain fiscal ruin by obtaining concessions from government employee unions to offset personnel costs?

 

Based on recent news coverage of labor unrest in Wisconsin, the answer seems to be a resounding NO! Let's look at a few basic facts.

 

Fact: The national economy remains in a fragile condition overall.

 

Fact: States all across the nation are in dire fiscal conditions.

 

Fact: State employee pension and benefits costs are a significant contributor to the problem.

 

Fact: State employee labor unions are opposed to changes in the distribution of these costs between employee and employer.

 

Fact: Private sector workers generally pay a higher percentage of both their health insurance and pension costs.

 

Fact: Private sector employees are typically less secure in their jobs than their public sector counterparts.

 

It's happening in 27 of the 50 states. Governors are confronted with a dangerous and politically difficult choice: do we protect the benefits of the state workforce, or do we force state employees to increase (in some cases significantly) the percentage of the costs of their own benefits package?

 

The choice is dangerous because for a number of these 27 states, the tipping point for financial ruin faces them in the Fiscal Years 2012 and 2013 budgets. We're used to hearing about Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid facing insolvency in the out-years, but a handful of state governments are staring down that fiscal barrel right now.

 

The choice is politically difficult because it involves the organized. Not people who track the details of their lives on Blackberry or daybook, but the professionally organized, people who are covered by a collective bargaining representatives.

 

Teachers, cops and firefighters are the ones we first think about when we talk about public sector unions. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of other categories of workers now covered by white-collar state labor unions. In point of fact, just about every single worker of the almost 80,000-person Maryland state government workforce is a member of a labor union.

 

It's fairly easy to foster a strong sense of loyalty and sympathy for the people who protect us, keep us safe and educate our children. We want them to be compensated appropriately considering the importance of their work.

 

That sympathy may not extend to jobs that have a private sector counterpart that has already been shouldering a higher share of benefit costs.

 

The argument employed by labor organizers has always been that government employees are not paid as well as those employed in the private sector, so more generous benefits serve as the offset.

 

That, according to a favored phrase of former Frederick County Commissioner and retired U.S. Army Colonel Mark Hoke, is a steaming heap of bovine fecal substance.

 

It probably wasn't even true when it was first claimed, and it's simply a fantasy now. Public sector pay scales are equal to, and in many cases more generous, than their private sector counterpart positions. Need confirmation? Check the payroll listings here on TheTentacle.com or on The Frederick News Post online edition.

 

So, the confluence of lowered revenue expectations, high salaries, and generous benefits for public sector workers is forcing governors – Democrat and Republican alike – to seek significant concessions from labor unions that represent state employees.

 

The pushback was inevitable and substantial. In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker is under a full frontal assault, facing the threat of an organized recall for pushing the Republican majorities in the state House and Senate to require a significant increase in the employee contributions for both health insurance premiums and pension benefits.

 

In an odd twist of irony, Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to allow state workers other than teachers and public safety workers to organize. So now the home state of the first white collar labor union is now the first battleground in what will surely be a much larger battle.

 

New York, California, and New Jersey are also facing serious fiscal crises that will require a shift of burden from taxpayers to state workers. The mob scenes in Wisconsin are sure to be replicated in Trenton, Albany and Sacramento.

 

Here in Maryland, a pro-union governor and legislature provide the necessary protections that state workers and their bargaining representatives need. In fact, they've paid dearly for it. Not in their share of the costs, but in campaign contributions from unions to the leaders in both chambers of the General Assembly.

 

Everyone will, and should, share in the pain of righting our fiscal ship.

 

While economic recovery should not be an excuse to bust unions, neither should it be used as a political tool to inoculate public sector workers from accepting a more fair distribution of the cost of their own care and feeding.

 

The louder the cry to protect the status quo, and the more inconvenient the consequences of sickouts, work stoppages and job actions by fairly-paid government workers, the less tolerant the rest of us will become.

 



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