Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wisconsin, America and Public Workers

Pittsburgh caught Wisconsin Fever on Tuesday:

Amid battles over workers' rights in the Midwest, Pittsburgh City Council on Tuesday passed a proclamation honoring public employees.

Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, whose grandfather, Joseph Rudiak, was a labor organizer, assailed Wisconsin officials for trying to restrict collective bargaining rights and mandate pension contributions. Similar legislation is on the table in Ohio.

"It is a reactionary agenda that will end the livelihood of thousands of working Americans, and it must stop," Ms. Rudiak said at a news conference attended by a couple dozen union officials and supporters. (P-G, Team Effort)

The great offense lies not exactly in what these bills are seeking to accomplish in terms of cost savings for states, but in taking certain things entirely off the negotiating table from the start, i.e. benefits.

In Wisconsin, Walker championed a bill that would make public workers bargain only for wages and require them to pay 5.8 percent of their pension costs; they pay nothing now. They would have to foot 12 percent of their health-care premiums, up from 6 percent. Police and firefighters wouldn’t be covered by the measure. (Bloomberg, Mark Niquette)

If you're saying workers may not collectively bargain for benefits, working conditions and anything that comes affiliated with their jobs, that's an abridgement of a fundamental human right. So when Post-Gazette columnist Ruth Ann Daily complains that the Wisconsin labor protesters are being selfish, I think she's either missing that key distinction, or else feels that public sector unions' efficient stranglehold on politicians make such an abridgement of human rights worthwhile, even necessary.

As far as leverage during negotiations go, in this world it usually lies with management. The fact that in some parts of one sector of our economy, it tends to lie a bit more with workers isn't an immediate cause to start throwing babies out with bathwater. If it weren't for generous government benefits and pension security, hardly anyone of any talent or experience would work for the public sector, owing to the fact that private enterprise can still churn out far better salaries in many cases.

If Ruth Ann would like to "stem the tide of red ink" in state budgets, a better course would be to agitate exactly how she does so frequently -- for a higher awareness among a savvy, interconnected public of dire public concerns, and greater civic engagement to make changes. In other words, pressure politicians to give unions a haircut all you want, just don't bust them with an end-around.

I will however say this:

This is a war, not a one-and-done battle. The most significant armies have yet to declare sides or take the field, and the parameters for future labor arrangements are squarely on the table for inevitable causes. So when Infinonymous points out:

If unions representing local police officers, paramedics, firefighters and state troopers continue to defend with mindless uniformity the inexplicably violent, irresponsible and obnoxious conduct of their members, those unions seem destined to lose public support. Why those unions would follow such a risky course when government budgets and pension plans are stressed is difficult to understand. Most public employees serve the public well; why do their unions seem to perform so poorly? (Infinonymous)

The anonymous provocateurs with unknown ties and affiliations behind that blog happen to be correct when they write that. It's tough to ask a union brotherhood not to support one among its members if there is a legally conceivable path to allow him or her to keep providing for his or her family. But it would be better if those rare, truly uncontrollable hot heads and numb skulls were instead shunned on occasion by that brotherhood for not holding up their end of a very important bargain.

Second: when the Battle of Wisconsin is successfully concluded along with the Public Workers War of 2011, it sure would be nice (if not absolutely necessary) to see teachers, public works crews, and firefighters turn around, get in their cars, and drive for hundreds of miles to support janitors, food processors and nurses in the private sector -- either through far more active and constant organizing or through supporting the actions of the relatively few organized private-sector unions. Otherwise, the rest of working America might look back on the carnival at Wisconsin and feel rather duped and used.


  1. Based on the figures here, I think the Bloomberg article you link to has a mistake. The governor wants the union members to pay 5.8% of their salary to pension costs, not 5.8% of their pension costs. That is obviously a much worse deal for the union.

    The figures for health care premiums match what I've seen elsewhere and are very generous.

    On a related note, I think it is safe to ignore all private sector to public sector wage comparisons that don't include benefits in the calculation.

  2. Having spoken with a state worker who is in management in WI, they are all looking at having to "contribute" to their pensions. So there is a lot of grousing about the pay cut that represents.

    If public workers would start to switch to portable, defined contribution plans, a lot of this hostage taking of state and local government employees could maybe get better. But their unions would have to agree to it. Or, if there are no unions, maybe it starts to happen. Or maybe retirement goes away, entirely.

    The shouting and tantrums have got to stop. Doesn't help with the WI governor is the biggest bully of them all.

    The unions could have a role in this, but they would have to change the arguments.

  3. Federal state and local pension plans are in distress.The lavish pensions and benefit packages that the state reps,senators, and the judiciary receive are outrageous.The average run of the mill gov't worker is not reaping the same largess.We need a new paradigm for public service employees. They need to share in funding their pension and their benefits.The public sector financial crisis begs for a solution.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Monk's comment deleted for obscene language, not to mention a semi-obscene personal insult.

  6. @rich10e - State and Federal Reps fair very well. Serve once, and the rewards are huge. The "run of the mill" g'vmt worker gets held up as the problem, but the whole story does not get told.

  7. The anonymous provocateurs with unknown ties and affiliations behind that blog happen to be correct when they write that.

    The full impact of that just hit me. There's more than one of them?! Aaaayeee! Run.

  8. MH - Just speculation / an educated guess. I've no privileged information on the deal over there.

  9. State Employees (and elected officials) do pay into the pension system and for their health care benefits. It might not be as much as you want, but they have made major changes towards these costs.

  10. This is true. I keep getting annoyed by the anonymous, frequent commenters.

  11. Good thing you quit Bram. Reading you push the Burgess agenda was dull and disappointing. Congrats on your new job.

  12. Thanks, I guess. I don't think I quit, just slowed down. Besides, elections are boring before the endorsement and I haven't had strong feelings about noise, dumpster collection and tow policy non-enforcement. I see that five members of Council and the budget director went to Harrisburg to win friends, influence people, and demonstrate to all and sundry that they really, honestly are concerned about reform. Concerned, I tells you. See! Look! Recognize!

    Burgess agenda? What would such a thing comprise I wonder? We're all peoples here. I endorse all incumbents, how's that?

  13. I have strong feelings about putting the trash in the actual dumpster, but not about when the dumpster is collected so long as it is collected before the dumpster is too full. South Oakland has been getting steadily worse for the past year.

  14. Bram, you stated that you support all incumbents and we know how that worked out for them. (not blaming you)Councilor Rudiak tweeted after the endorsements, "Curious how the Allegheny County Labor Council and the Democratic Committee are running against each other in every City Council race." With what's happening in Wisconsin and other states, the role of unions in gov't jobs is under scrutiny.Now almost all the candidates who lost the endorsement are still seeking office.Should the Democratic Party do away with endorsements or should the Allegheny County Labor Council become a party?

  15. Sorry, Rich, I just noticed this. I don't honestly see the utility of the ACDC endorsing candidates, at least not in non-special elections. They can make an argument that it leads to better-honed candidates or candidates in better accord with the committee itslef, but it also leads to fratricide, drama, wasted resources, less popular small-d democracy and the occasional little embarassment.

    This is the first year I'm hearing SO MUCH about the Labor Council endorsement and I guess that's because there's such a divergence between progressive labor and the establishment. I mean, I guess.

  16. I agree with you. The downside is not worth the "fratricide, drama, and wasted resources" I've argued against the endorsement for years.The primary is to pick the candidate endorsed by the voters!!

  17. Pensions are under water and near dead because legacy costs are killing the working class. Union endorsements equate to "lets get this guy to fund our legacy costs!!" Some members of unions don't even know what actions their unions (faulting leadership) are taking. The bus drivers in Pittsburgh are at a serious crossroads. Mr. McMahon screamed, "Union busters!", because why? Dan O didn't buy the junk in the concessions proposal. Anyone with half a brain can see that Mr. McMoney's intentions are to protect his own pension. Today's rates are not sustainable in the public sector. They are not sustainable for police and they are not sustainable for firefighters either. Balance your checkbook! Too much going out and not enough going in. Eventually you will go penniless. We are there now. I'll be damned if public money should go into subsidizing a fat retirement for any profession. I can handle paying for a nominal retirement, but how about a retirement for a bus driver with active service of 10 years? Crap! How about calculating your retirement amount based on your last year's salary- Allegheny County Police. Great to have police officers sleeping for 20 hours extra a week at the airport so they can beef up the retirement pay. Outstanding. Concessions need to start at legacy costs. Decreases across the board need to be done. Increases in personal contributions need to happen. Changes in pension qualifications need to be reformulated. This isn't the old days! As I said before, bus drivers are at a crossroads. Active bus drivers are in serious need to eyeball their leadership and figure out whether the president, vp, etc, are working in the best interest of the whole union or serving the interests of a "few old timers". This is the same sick game I have seen in many other unions. I have witnessed teacher's union negotiations serve a certain segment of "elder" teachers at the expense of the younger ones. I have witnessed airline work rules and concessions boil down to protecting "older buddies". This is the contention I have with unions. I don't have a problem with rank and file. Rank and File is just that. They are working, trying to make a living and raising families. I will hear their complaints way before I listen to Mr. McMahon's self serving rants. The rank and file in our unions, men and women, need to shake the trees and get those bad apples off.