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Political Physics: On Today’s Lunch Menu…Public Employee Unions

So since my last blogumn on racial identity seemed to strike some nerves on both sides of the issue, this week I decided to choose a less controversial topic – unions.  Yeah right!

Back in February 2009 I wrote a blogumn for Fierce and Nerdy entitled, “Political Physics: The Jigsaw Approach to Dealing with the Economic Crisis.”  My basic premise was that given the current economic crisis, we all needed to “spread the pain.”  My specific focus was on unions in NJ.  I asserted that union employees in NJ should have agreed to an 18-month wage freeze.  I argued that if the unions agreed to the freeze, then furloughs for both union and non-union members could have been avoided.  Now it is important to note that almost all non-union employees, like myself, in state government have not had any increase (e.g., cost of living, raise, etc.) in years.  So I felt the compromise was fair and it would also mean that we avoided furloughs, which would have resulted in a 5 – 10% reduction in our annual salaries.  In the end, the unions refused to take the freeze and we all ended up taking 10 furlough days in 2009 at a cost of about 5% of our salaries.  Of course it was more complicated than that, the furloughs helped avoid layoffs so we still avoided the worst-case scenario, but after that I struggled with my opinion of unions.


Until I moved back to NJ almost five years ago, I was a staunch advocate of unions.  For me unions were social justice and civil rights organizations.  In some ways, no different in philosophy from a NAACP, expect their “protected class” was the worker.  Today, according to Wikipedia, “the most prominent unions are among public sector employees such as teachers and police [and] activity by labor unions in the United States today centers on collective bargaining over wages, benefits, and working conditions for their membership and on representing their members if management attempts to violate contract provisions.”  Now I am not an expert on unions, but for me although the unions of today still wage battles on behalf of social justice issues like living wage, health care, trade policy and immigration, I believe the unions of today are very different from the unions of yesterday.

Today, my view of unions is not so cut and dry. However, one thing I am positive about is that the recent economic downtown coupled with what I believe is short-sightedness on the part of union leadership is fueling an anti-union response that threatens to cripple unions nationwide.

Across the country, unions are under attack, especially public employee unions.  According to Susan Urahn, Managing Director of the Pew Center for the States, last year “eighteen states either raised the pension-contribution levels for public employees or reduced benefits for their retirees.  Three states — South Dakota, Colorado and Minnesota — decided to eliminate cost-of-living raises for state workers who have already retired. Illinois raised its retirement age to 67, and Vermont, Michigan and Utah introduced ‘hybrid’ retirement plans that step away from the defined-benefit pension plans, which were the standard for much of the 20th century.”

People are hurting and they need someone to blame.  And rightfully or wrongfully, unions have become the target.  According to a Pew Research Center poll this month, “47 percent of respondents said their states should cut pension plans for government employees,” which made it the most popular option on the table.  People are feeling like I felt back in February 2009. They are hurting and they believe we need to spread the pain so that one group is not baring the brunt of this recession more than another.

Now union supporters would argue that unions have already born their fair share.  Take the battle waging in New Jersey right now between the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) and Governor Chris Christie.  The NJEA is arguably one of the most powerful unions in the state with 200,000 members who pay more than $1 million a year in dues.  Governor Christie is pushing for union members to contribute significantly more towards their health care costs and he wants their pension contributions increased, their pay raises tied to merit, and tenure eliminated.  But according to Matt Bai in a recent NYT Magazine article, “In the union’s view, Christie is simply trying to exploit the downward spiral of the American labor movement. First, greedy companies, claiming pressures from the new global market began rolling back the pensions and benefits that private-sector unions negotiated over a period of decades. And now, instead of trying to find a way to restore those hard-earned benefits for all workers, politicians like Christie are using corporate America’s bad behavior as an excuse to take benefits away from the last set of union members who’ve managed to cling to them — those in the public sector. Christie is pitting one set of middle-class workers against the other, perhaps in the hope that private-sector unions will ultimately turn on their brethren in the public workforce, or that the public unions will turn on one another. And the end result will be that everyone loses.”

I agree the argument about pitting union workers against non-union workers, but merely pointing it out will not fix this problem.  I just had a recent discussion with a friend about our health care contributions.  After the discussion we realized that her (a private sector worker) health care contribution is more than five times what I (a public sector worker) pay per check.  Yet, my health insurance is infinitely better than hers.  Trust me, she did not feel any better knowing that.

And she is not alone.  According to a survey in February 2010 by the Pew Research Center, “Favorable views of labor unions have plummeted since 2007, amid growing public skepticism about unions’ purpose and power. Currently, 41% say they have a favorable opinion of labor unions while about as many (42%) express an unfavorable opinion.  In January 2007, a clear majority (58%) had a favorable view of unions while just 31% had an unfavorable impression.”  Furthermore, an August 2009 Gallup poll, found that fewer than half of Americans (48%) approve of labor unions, an all-time low for a question that has been asked since 1936. In August 2008, 59% said they approved of labor unions.”  And in NJ, where I live, the numbers are even worse.  In a recent Quinnipiac University poll conducted this month, “only 27 percent have a favorable view of the union, while 44 percent say their view is unfavorable.”  In the last decade, there has been a consistent erosion of public support for unions and that support has fallen even more dramatically during their recent economic downtown.

Union leadership has got to put together a better response then just “No.”  Listen, I understand that unions are loathe to defer wages, cut wages and benefits or agree to other concessions or givebacks because once you enter into those types of agreements you could be setting your membership back years, if not forever, and you lose negogiating power.  But these are unusual times and they may call for unusual measures.  Even among the various unions, there are union leaders who are admitting that the time has come to sit down and have serious conversations about acceptable concessions and compromises.

As Matt Bai noted in his NYT Magazine article, “Some unions are more attuned than others to this gradual changing of the climate. The American Federation of Teachers, for example, which is by far the smaller of the two major teachers’ unions nationally, has consciously tried to position itself as a more pragmatic union and has proposed a lot of its own classroom reforms in a campaign to get out in front of public opinion.  In Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, A.F.T. organizers have signaled that they will work with Christie on changes to the pension and health care system, in addition to negotiating on issues like merit pay.  ‘Better to be seated at the table than to be on the menu’ is how Joseph Del Grosso, the union’s leader in Newark, explained [it].”

The fact is the train – call it pension reform or health care reform or education reform – is about to leave the station.  And whether we like it or not, for many states, like Wisconsin and New Jersey, cutting public sector employee benefits, pensions, raises, etc. are becoming the number one option states are looking at to balance their budgets.  So the question becomes do public employee unions get on the train and try to make room for themselves at the table or get run over.

Like Joseph Del Grosso said, “better to be seated at the table than to be on the menu.”  Right now unions, particularly public employee unions, around the country are on the menu.  And you know what happens to things on the menu, they get eaten.

featured image credit: Chris Devers via Banksy