As the votes were counted all around the country last Tuesday and Wednesday, headlines screamed that public employee unions had taken a well-deserved drubbing. In Wisconsin, San Jose and San Diego public employee pensions were deemed to be excessive, pay way out of kilter with the rest of the world and benefits like tenure a tool for perpetuating mediocrity.
There may be something to that, maybe not all but some. Then again maybe there’s a whole other way of looking at it.
Behind every public worker’s pension, every firefighter’s early retirement, every police officer’s uniform allowance, there’s a board of publicly elected officials. They are school trustees, county commissioners, boards of supervisors, special district directors, state legislators and governors, mayors or federal officials. And they are more than equal partners in every contract, every penny of pension, every nickel of medical coverage, every early retirement clause “enjoyed” by their public employees.
Those duly elected officials either negotiate themselves or they direct management staff to negotiate or they hire consultants/attorneys/labor specialists to negotiate for them. They tell their negotiators and negotiation teams what to do, how to present issues, how to respond to proposals and offers from the other side. And their negotiators have no more authority to make final decisions than does a union or employee negotiator. They have the authority to come back to their boards, tell them what’s new on the table and ask for direction for the next round of talks.
Likewise, union and employee negotiators have the authority to come back to their members and lay out what the options are. The members ultimately vote on the issues just as the elected board ultimately votes — simple majority rules — unless there are special requirements such as four-fifths or two-thirds in some cases.
If the citizens of a public entity, a county, a school or public utilities district, a state or a nation don’t like paying “excessive” amounts for their government services, they might want to consider electing representatives who will better represent their concerns.
Years ago, I was a negotiator for my teachers association. Times were tough in the district, not unlike today. The board of trustees hired a fancy law firm out of San Francisco that specialized in public employee issues and contracts. On the very first day of our very first session, we presented a written list and summary of our “issues.” The district’s chief negotiator looked it over, handed it back and said “Items 1, 3, 6, 7 and 12 are not negotiable.”
“What?” our team gasped. “Are you saying salary, class size and benefits are not negotiable?”
“Yes that’s exactly what I’m saying,” he said. And that’s pretty much how it stood for the next couple of years — arbitration, Fair Labor Relations Board — the whole nine yards. We took a strike vote eventually, the first of several in consecutive years, but ultimately we never went on strike — no one wanted it and no one would have benefitted from it.
Unlike publicly elected commissioners, legislators, trustees and directors, public employees can’t simply have a meeting and vote to raise their pay, expand their benefits or reduce their work hours. Your state legislature can and does. Your county commissioners can and do. Your school trustees can vote to increase their own stipends and their mileage reimbursement if they want. They collectively do it all the time. Sometimes, the general public grumbles about it.
Sometimes as we saw in the case of the mayor and city council of the tiny town of Vernon in Southern California, the elected officials step way over the line and give themselves obscenely high salaries based on nothing. Now some of them are facing some jail time — as well they should. You can oppose unions and public employees on different levels but you’ll never find that they were able to give themselves obscenely high salaries. They can ask, but they can’t “give.” Your elected officials can give (to themselves) without even asking.
Frankly, it sticks in my craw to know that certain public employees, the 1 or 2 percent, retire with princely pensions. Princely by the standards of the average American working stiff. And there’s something annoying about knowing there are people whose retirement income is higher than their working income ever was. That doesn’t work for me.
I’ve often said with more than a trace of irony and resentment that the best job in the county is to be the retired sheriff or the retired superintendent of the high school district. In the same breath, I acknowledge they put in a lot of years and paid a lot of dues.
The thing to remember however is that not one of those people ever had the authority to write their own ticket. They had to bargain with a board of elected officials who for whatever bunch of reasons saw fit to make contractual agreements for: Higher pensions to make up for a lifetime of lower salaries; higher salaries to compete with wealthier jurisdictions; better benefits to make up for lower salaries; more agreeable working conditions to compensate for fewer benefits. And those elected officials have a lot of damn nerve to pretend they were held up, sandbagged or otherwise hoodwinked by public employee unions or public agency managers for all these years.
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.