Saturday, February 19, 2011

When Is It Their Turn?

Tim Rutten has a pretty decent column up at the Los Angeles Times, one that I have a pretty hard time faulting, at least in most respects. His thesis is that because of the budget shortfalls most states are facing (and California's is staggering -- over $10 billion) public employee unions would be well advised to be "statesmanlike" and accept cuts in benefits, particularly in pensions, to shore up the declining support of unions as well as to help out their states.

He cites a recent Pew Poll which certainly supports this thesis:

The study also finds that public regard for organized labor generally is at a historic low and that discontent with public sector pensions and benefits is rising. In fact, when Pew asked respondents to rank their budget reduction preferences, the "pension plans of government employees" topped the list by 16 percentage points, ahead of cutting funding for colleges and universities and road and transportation expenditures, which tied for second, 10 percentage points ahead of cuts in healthcare.

Still, like Wisconsin, California is a state in which organized labor continues to enjoy a strong presence and broad support. But, if something like the current meltdown in Madison is to be avoided here, our public employee unions will have to accept rollbacks or find themselves increasingly marginalized. ...

Even so, Pew found, "most Americans think unions have helped to increase unionized employees' salary (53%) and to improve working conditions for all Americans (51%)." The sticking point, however, is that Americans think that unions are just plain awful for business

As the survey concludes: "Those results correlate to a stunning plunge in Americans' attitudes toward unions in just the last three years as the economy plummeted into recession. In 2007, Pew pegged support for unions at 58%. Three years later, it had fallen an astounding 17 points."
[Emphasis added]

You can click on the link to see the Pew numbers Mr. Rutten cites (and I wish the column had included a link to the poll itself), but they do demonstrate that public opinion is that public employee unions have over-reached.

Perhaps that is so, but Rutten also acknowledges indirectly that public employee unions are not the only guilty parties, but it is the unions, the workers, who are being called upon to do the right thing.

Public employee unions can't be faulted for negotiating the best deals possible for their members. Union officers, however, need to recognize that their members' defined pensions stand out in an era when most private workers have been pushed into the equities markets to fund their retirements, as one employer after another has replaced traditional pension plans with risky individual 401(k) plans.

This flight from social responsibility on the part of employers is a national disgrace and, most assuredly, not organized labor's fault. But that won't induce hard-pressed and unorganized working people, whatever the color of their collar, to support benefits for organized public employees they no longer can obtain for themselves.

While I cannot fault Mr. Rutten's call for the public sector unions to be open to re-negotiate benefit packages during this difficult time for state and local governments, I do find fault that business is not being asked to do the same. Labor is only one part of the equation. It is hard to ask working people, whether in the public or the private sector, to make sacrifices when bankers and Wall Street thirty-somethings are celebrating huge bonuses after their businesses have been bailed out by taxpayers, unionized or not.

Why is the fiscal health of the business community more important than the fiscal health of the labor community? Why should one element sacrifice and not the other? And why is the public, which is all of us, more concerned about the business half than their own half?

Those are questions which are now being addressed in Madison, Wisconsin. And the answers are going to have an impact on this nation for a very long time.

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Blogger Classof65 said...

I can understand states renegotiating pensions with the workers' union, however, I am totally against taking away pension funds that the workers have already earned, especially if the workers paid into the pensions from their paychecks. After all, the benefit package is considered to be a part of the pay package when making the decision as to whether to take the job or not.

With jobs as scarce as they are now if I were one of the workers, I would choose to give up future pension payments rather than lose my job. But if I had paid into a pension fund, I would expect to get those payments back -- unless the payments were made to a mutual fund and lost when the stock market fell...

3:09 PM  

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