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Public labor reform passes a big test

June 11, 2012
Editorial by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: Publisher Catherine Moore, Managing Editor Peter Crowley

We're no authorities on anything else Scott Walker has done as governor of Wisconsin, but we like that he changed the dynamic between his state and its employee unions - a move that resonated nationwide. Therefore, insofar as it sends a wider political message, we're glad the people of Wisconsin re-elected him in a recall vote Tuesday.

Deficits and debt must be dealt with at many levels of government today. One way is to raise taxes and close tax loopholes, and there is room for this if people marshal enough political will. But as a cure-all, tax hikes are inadvisable. For one thing, they drag on the economy, leading to greater unemployment, and for another, there's simple fairness: When times are tough, more than just the rich need to give a little. We can't expect whatever services, benefits and wages government has provided to continue to grow in perpetuity. Some cuts are appropriate.

Of all the efficiencies to be gained, it's generally better to rein in employees' raises and benefits than to lay them off or to eliminate needed services. But union leaders will almost always choose to let their less-senior fellows lose their jobs rather than giving an inch on senior members' generously accrued raises and benefits. Those layoffs add to unemployment and poverty, and weaken public services. Keeping those services staffed is in the public interest, but keeping public employee pay and benefits higher than private-sector counterparts is not.

In Essex County, for example, if the union had been willing to reopen its contract, that might have tilted the Board of Supervisors away from voting to sell the Horace Nye Nursing Home. These supervisors can hardly be accused of taking orders from the Koch brothers; they just wanted to avoid a debt whirlpool.

Yes, public employees are incredibly valuable; yes, unions are important; and yes, in some situations there is room for taxes to be raised or loopholes closed. We shouldn't crack down on middle-class public workers just to maintain tax breaks for the rich. But we do need our system of government to work effectively, and therefore, SOMEONE has to apply downward pressure on public employees' pay and benefits. That is, quite simply, the disciplinary component of the mechanism, and like it or not, it's a necessary role, just as the unions are in representing workers.

The problem was clearly summarized by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., in an essay published in Thursday's USA Today: "In the private sector, unions have an adversary. The business owner looks out for the business and the profit. In government, no such adversary exists, especially when government union bosses spend a fortune to elect handpicked candidates. Those candidates then become the 'negotiators.' This vicious cycle has become a huge drain on the resources of many local and state governments. This is why union hero Franklin Roosevelt said, 'The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.'"

Don't think it's just conservative or libertarian Republicans like Sen. Paul who see things this way. Our own Gov. Andrew Cuomo does - a Democrat in one of the most union-dominated states - and has acted on it. The same goes for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the brash former White House chief of staff.

At the local-government level, the people on both sides of the negotiating table are more likely to know and empathize with each other. It's harder to tell someone you grew up with that you can't give them a raise this time around, but again, someone has to do that dirty job from time to time.

Such steps are demanded by the times we live in. There must be ebbs to balance the flows.

Whatever kind of leader Gov. Walker is otherwise, he has been a reformer, and his particular reform of cracking down on collective bargaining echoed throughout the U.S. - especially with this election, which seems like a single-issue referendum as much as any gubernatorial election ever is. The reform passed a huge test, and we may see more ripples here in New York and the Adirondacks.

For instance, what about prevailing-wage laws that greatly inflate the cost of public works?

 
 

 

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