- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 27, 2010

Major clashes are breaking out between public-sector unions and state and local governments seeking to steady their wobbly books by scaling back employee benefits, pitting labor’s political clout against lawmakers eager to avoid raising taxes or cutting programs.

From New York to California, state capitals and city halls facing huge budget deficits are fighting with unions to slash costs through pension cuts or freezes and worker furloughs and by renegotiating contracts with unions that represent civil servants, teachers, police, firefighters and other public servants.

“A lot of state and city governments’ backs are against the wall; they can’t go on borrowing forever like the federal government,” said Chris Edwards, the director of tax-policy studies at the Cato Institute, a free-market think tank.

“It’s a giant battle, and these are only the opening salvos.”

Putting more pressure on historically sticky relationships, government officials say that public employee unions for decades have pushed labor costs above acceptable levels by demanding exorbitant benefits packages.

The unions, in turn, say it’s not their fault that governments have mismanaged pensions funds and that workers unfairly have been cast as scapegoats for budget deficits.

“They’re looking to balance their books on the backs of the workers, and at some point some politicians are going to have own up to the fact that they’re going to have to fix things on the revenue side,” said Gordon Pavy, director of collective bargaining for the AFL-CIO labor federation.

As the economy soured and budget deficits soared, mayors and governors have been confronting unions more frequently and aggressively, particularly when faced with the politically dangerous alternative of raising taxes on an already cash-strapped electorate.

“The political pressure on mayors [from unions] is less, and that’s why the mayors are able to get away with it,” said University of Chicago public policy professor Robert J. LaLonde. “Raising taxes now is worse than taking on the unions.”

Union leaders say the tension has lead to the unfair denunciation of public workers, with politicians portraying them as overpaid, underworked and ungrateful bureaucrats.

“The vilification of teachers and librarians and firefighters, it’s pretty unseemly,” said Steven Kreisberg, director of collective bargaining for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents more than 1.5 million workers.

“When you have difficult times like this, many politicians are going to resort to demagogy; they are going to create an ‘other’ to be the enemy and will try to rally folks around [using] the ‘other.’ … I think we’re seeing some of that play out.”

Mr. Kreisberg added that public-sector workers nationwide have been subjected to pay and benefit cuts at far greater rates than in the private sector.

“The idea that somehow public workers are immune to the cyclical economic turmoil is a myth,” he said. “To a certain degree sometimes some mayors take advantage of these economic times to inflict more pain than is necessary.”

Among the biggest money drains for many local and state governments are underfunded pensions, a figure estimated at $3 trillion nationally.

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