Plan Would End Collective Bargaining
FEB. 10, 2011
By LANNY EBENSTEIN
There are at present several approaches being considered to reform public unions in California, including proposals to change public sector pensions and to enact paycheck protection, which limits the ability of unions to use members’ dues for political purposes without first asking their permission. These approaches merit support as ways to reduce public sector union power in California.
However, the best approach to reducing public employee union power would be to end public sector collective bargaining. This would be the solution to many of the government problems that plague California and many other states.
As an increasing number of observers are recognizing, the essential problem in contemporary public policy at the state and local levels is the excessive power of public sector unions.
It is not merely that these unions have engrossed a disproportionate share of resources for themselves. It is that they alter the political climate in the jurisdictions in which they are strong. By electing majorities to thousands of city councils, school boards, boards of supervisors and special districts across the United States, as well as to state and federal legislative chambers, public sector unions are the primary driving force for bureaucratic, expansive and costly government.
With respect to expense, the cost of public sector unions is well-documented. There can be little question that government employees in general have higher salaries, more secure jobs, better working conditions, better and more benefits, more sick leave (credited to retirement), more holidays, and better and earlier retirements than employees in the private sector.
In the city of Los Angeles, for example, public employees receive 17 days of sick leave a year, 12 at 100 percent of the employee’s daily rate and five days at 75 percent. Ten holidays a year is standard in the public sector, and if a holiday falls on a weekend it is taken on the preceding Friday or following Monday. Public sector employees’ health plans are usually top-rate. Working conditions and job security are superlative.
But it is when it comes to pensions that public sector workers really stand out. Many public employees in California can retire between the ages of 50 to 55 with 75 percent to 90 percent of their final salary as an inflation-indexed pension for life, together with health insurance. Especially in public safety area, the actuarial value of public employee pensions can be millions of dollars.
There are already more than 12,000 retired public employees in California with annual pensions of $100,000 or more. This number will increase substantially in the years ahead. Looking forward 20 years, California will have 2 million retired public employees drawing average pensions of $50,000 — $100 billion per year in pension costs when the entire state budget is now merely $85 billion.
The answer to excessive compensation for public sector workers and to excessive influence of public sector unions is to end public sector collective bargaining. Only when unions lose the power to represent public employees in the bargaining process will their power diminish.
President Franklin Roosevelt was clear that there is a great distinction between public and private sector unions: “Meticulous attention should be paid to the special relations and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the government,” he said in 1937. “The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”
George Meany, the first and longtime president of the AFL-CIO, had the same view.
In the near future, a group of Californians will submit the first petition in the country to the state attorney general’s office to quality an initiative for the ballot that would end public sector collective bargaining in the state. The proposed California state constitutional amendment would require about 800,000 signatures to qualify for the 2012 ballot.
To eliminate public sector collective bargaining would not take away the right of government workers to form voluntary organizations to lobby on a variety of issues, including compensation. But it would not give these organizations the ability to represent government workers in the bargaining process.
The proposed California state constitutional amendment would be modeled on successful legislation in this area in Virginia that was passed under former Democratic Governor Douglas Wilder. The initiative would disallow any state or local governing body from recognizing or bargaining with any public employee union or association.
Both Democrats and Republicans should embrace public sector union reform. It is to no one’s advantage, other than current public employees, to continue the status quo.
The rise of public sector unions has coincided with a vast expansion of government activity and wasteful and overly expensive compensation of government employees. To end public sector collective bargaining would be a significant step in the right direction.
Lanny Ebenstein, Ph.D., is president of California Center for Public Policy in Santa Barbara
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