Probing Politics: Don't blame the unions, look in the mirror

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Few would dispute that the labor movement in the United States has helped deliver safer working conditions, higher wages and generous benefits. Along with the GI Bill that enabled tens of thousands of veterans to pursue higher education, the unions have helped build the middle class.

Despite that success, the union movement of today has dwindled in numbers.

In 1982, more than 20 percent of the nation’s workers were union members but, today, just a little more than 12 percent claim union membership, the same percent as we have in Maine.

So where are unions thriving in the U.S.? Thirty-seven percent of all employees in the public sector are unionized, compared to 7.6 percent in the private sector.

Most people who serve in the public sector surely do not expect to get rich.

Most choose public sector employment to help solve problems and to improve society. For example, teachers are among the most important public employees. We depend on their skills and enthusiasm to educate and challenge our children to be even smarter, happier and more productive than their parents.

Similarly, the expertise and dedication of most state employees help protect our environment, engineer our roads, care for the disabled and run our government. Many trade the risks and rewards of private sector employment for job satisfaction, security and employment benefits.

These more predictable rewards are often secured through a union.

Unions, however, have clung to seniority, certifications and longevity as objective measures for compensation. Performance-related compensation based on outcomes, however, appears to be lower on the priority list, and, their current financial expectations are out of sync with today’s economy. For example, according to the Maine teachers’ union web site, their leadership adopted collective bargaining objectives this year that state the following:

• Negotiate reduction in force procedures based on objective criteria only (e.g. seniority, certification, authorization, licensure, etc.) with no consideration to employee evaluations.

• All bargaining unit members should receive a real increase annually (i.e. a wage or salary increase at least equal to the annual increase in the cost-of-living) after accounting for any increased costs to the employee for maintenance of insurance benefits.

• Maintain or increase the employer-paid share of employee and dependent health insurance premiums, without compromising the health coverage and benefits of the existing plan.

It is not surprising then that salaries and benefits for many public sector workers have outpaced those in the private sector. Unfortunately, those high expectations are bumping up against a new economic reality. That’s why political involvement is so important for public sector unions. Politics sets the rules.

In the November election, the National Education Association and the Maine Education Association (teachers’ unions) together spent $640,000 in Maine to defeat a cap on government spending and taxes. Now, that’s putting resources where they will protect your self-interest.

In addition, the public sector is the one place a union can help elect the people who make the rules for their wages and benefits. When one looks at the composition of the Maine Legislature, 38 percent of legislators come from the public sector (active and retired teachers, retired state and federal employees) even though jobs in the public sector only amount to 17 percent of the overall workforce.

Political involvement has a distinct benefit. When contracts at the state level are negotiated, it is one set of state employees negotiating with another set of state employees for mutual benefit. And, when matters pertaining to retirement benefits are considered, many state legislators are actually voting on their own benefits as future or current retirees.

It just seems as though the whole process of compensation should be reformed to ensure arms-length recommendations are being made when committing tax dollars to the wages and benefits of public sector employees.

But if you believe that the cost of government, wages and benefits are too high, don’t blame the unions. Look in the mirror and ask: “Who have I elected to serve as ‘management’? Who have I sent to the Legislature, Congress, the Blaine House and the White House? Whose interests do they serve? Will they reform the current system? Do they get it?”

If you expect to get a different outcome in the future, then you need to elect more people who have experience other than in government; people who will see government involvement as one of many tools – but not the primary tool – to advance the prosperity of Maine residents.

Isn’t it time to look at our compensation structure and process so we can improve outcomes, efficiencies and job satisfaction in the public sector?

Isn’t it also time to elect a more balanced and diversified Legislature that sees government as an enabler and not as an outcome?

What do you think?

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Tony Payne is executive director of the Alliance for Maine’s Future and a Falmouth resident and town councilor. His column is published biweekly, and he can be reached at