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.

Monday, February 21, 2011

21st Century Billboard Regulations Coming

There is a public hearing tomorrow AKA Tuesday at 200 Ross St. at 2:00 PM on the Planning Department's proposed amendments to the Zoning Code on electronic advertising and message signage.

Scenic Pittsburgh, a project of the PA Resources Council and a local affiliate of Scenic America, has just released their Top Ten Reasons Billboards should be Banned:

10. Billboards blight the natural and architectural beauty of a neighborhood.

9. Billboards lower nearby property values.

8. Billboards advertise adult services and products to our children.

7. Billboards detract from the cultural character of a neighborhood and from local business.

6. Billboards deprive us freedom from constant persuasive messaging.

5. Electronic Billboards distract drivers with bright light and motion creating a traffic safety hazard.

4. Electronic Billboards are visible for miles and obscure the night sky.

3. Electronic Billboards are environmentally wasteful; one billboard consumes 30 times the energy of an average home.

2. Electronic Billboards contribute almost nothing to the local economy while billboards companies earn millions of dollars.

1. The scenic beauty of Pittsburgh, our beloved home, is NOT FOR SALE!!!! (Press materials, Scenic Pittsburgh)

I'm not up to speed on this legislation, but I can see it includes provisions for "Major Public Destination Facilities Electronic Signs" and "Special Signage Overlay Districts". I'm not clear about the former, but I understand the latter could come to apply to portions of the North Shore for example. Even though I agree with all of Scenic Pittsburgh's arguments in all circumstances, I don't see a good reason not to render unto persons of differing convictions what they are entitled by arranging some properly channeled "Las Vegas" atmosphere for the North Shore. I realize something similar was once said about the area around Grant and Liberty, but that was before anyone realized it was already a Very Precious Architectural District and also across the street from a residential high-rise.

I'm glad we're taking a fresh look at the code from the ground up.