Union Power Under Attack

With state budgets throughout the country sinking into the abyss public sector unions are now under attack everywhere. And unlike prior battles organized labor in the public sector is losing the battle where it counts, with the public. From the New York Times:

Across the nation, a rising irritation with public employee unions is palpable, as a wounded economy has blown gaping holes in state, city and town budgets, and revealed that some public pension funds dangle perilously close to bankruptcy. In California, New York, Michigan and New Jersey, states where public unions wield much power and the culture historically tends to be pro-labor, even longtime liberal political leaders have demanded concessions — wage freezes, benefit cuts and tougher work rules.

Throughout the country, from New York to California, states are facing unsustainable public spending, billions in unfunded pension and health care obligations, and a public unwilling to pony up more tax money. The result has been a political backlash against public sector unions who have been, in many cases, unwilling to make any concessions to protect services or to save the jobs of their most junior members.

The political fight has not been with exclusively with Republicans, although major Republican gains in statehouses throughout the country spell bad news for the public sector unions. Real pitched battles have occurred with Democrats, including some with strong pro-labor credentials. In many cases those fights are with Mayors, including the Mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa, who was an employee of the teachers union before becoming Mayor. Mayor Adrian Fenty of Washington D.C. and his superb Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhee were targeted for political destruction by the teachers, outraged at the quick pace of educational reform championed by the Mayor. And the Morning Joe clip attached below talks about Mayor Cory Booker of Trenton New Jersey and his battle with an intractable police union. Mayor Booker is a Democrat, and one of the outstanding Mayors in America.

The unions continue to fight not only on the financial front, but on the reform front, and that is not only in education. Archaic work rules, insistence on the protection of incompetent and illegal behavior on the job, refusal to consider efficiencies that save taxpayer dollars, have all been hallmarks of public sector unions throughout the United States. Mayors have been on the forefront of reform efforts, but are consistently hamstrung by state laws that prevent implementation of common sense management techniques that would bring us into the new century. And now Mayors are being joined by Governors, notably Republican Chris Christie, who has gained great political traction from his open battling with public sector unions. Christie is winning that fight. He is now apparently joined by newly elected New York Governor, Democrat Andrew Cuomo, who is calling for strong medicine to be applied to the New York state budget.

And while the jury is still out on California Governor Jerry Brown, that state’s enormous budget deficit and huge unfunded pension liability, is going to force his hand. David Crane, a Democrat who was a senior advisor to former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, has penned an article in the LA Times decrying the refusal of California’s Legislature to even think about pension reform.

Last summer Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed exactly that. Since then? Silence. State legislators are afraid even to utter the words “pension reform” for fear of alienating what has become — since passage of the Dills Act in 1978, which endowed state public employees with collective bargaining rights on top of their civil service protections — the single most politically influential constituency in our state: government employees. Because legislators are unwilling to raise issues that might offend that constituency, they have effectively turned the peroration of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on its head: Instead of a government of the people, by the people and for the people, we have become a government of its employees, by its employees and for its employees.

Ouch! Unfortunately the numbers must be dealt with. And that is a continuing problem in American politics today. A refusal to talk numbers. Additional taxes on the “rich” can be debated, but no matter what side of that question you are on you cannot “tax” your way out of the pension and health care costs that are destroying local and state governments. Until the unions nationwide stop putting forward the notion that the fiscal situation is not dire (they would have you believe that the economic meltdown is a management negotiating ploy) they are going to continue to slide backwards. They need to move to the middle and deal with Democrats who do not hate unions, but must balance budgets and preserve services. Methuen’s unions have, to some degree, accepted that reality. But sadly the reality has yet to hit most public sector unions in Massachusetts and nationwide.

Friday Add on- Today’s Boston Globe calls for the repeal of the Pacheco Law, which makes it almost impossible to privatize services currently handled by the public sector.

Read the New York Times story here.

Read the David Crane LA Times article here.


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