Up north in the union stronghold of King County, a remarkable thing is happening.
A small but growing number of public employee groups are agreeing to make do with what they have, conceding the usual automatic cost-of-living increases that have long driven increases in government payrolls.
King County Executive Dow Constantine last week announced a tentative agreement with a union that represents nearly 500 King County workers to hold the line on wages.
Constantine is hoping to eliminate cost-of-living increases for all employees whose contracts are subject to negotiation this year. The savings of $9.4 million would make a good-sized dent in the $60 million shortfall the county expects next year.
There’s something in it for union workers, too:
“Our interest is in saving services for the public and preserving jobs for our members,’’ union president Chris Dugovich said.
“When a job goes away, it is not likely to come back anytime soon. That hurts not only our members but the residents who depend upon the public services our members provide.’’
Now there is a guy who gets that unions that refuse to make sacrifices may be consigning more of their members to pink slips. Even more impressive was the recent concession by Seattle firefighters, who agreed – for the second year in a row – to forgo raises guaranteed them by contract.
The union could have played hardball, refusing to reopen the contract, but officials said they would rather preserve vital emergency services. Other city unions that have balked at getting anything less than what’s due them stand to look greedy by comparison.
What’s happening is a result of a recession that dragged on longer than expected and an economic recovery that has yet to arrive. Local governments can only endure so many rounds of budget cuts before essential services and jobs are on the chopping block.
Pierce County government is also approaching that breaking point. Officials said Wednesday that County Executive Pat McCarthy has asked county unions to consider forgoing their 2.5 percent cost-of-living increase for 2011.
It’s an exceedingly reasonable request, given that inflation – the very thing that cost-of-living increases supposedly address – is currently below zero.
But reasonable doesn’t always sell at the bargaining table. In Olympia, the governor is reportedly asking state-employee unions to shoulder more of their own health insurance premiums – they currently pay on average 12 percent, a far cry from the share many private sectors workers pay.
The same unions balked when the Legislature ordered furloughs to balance the budget. They claimed any savings would be eaten by overtime necessary to complete unfinished work. The Office of Financial Management debunked that claim earlier this month, finding that state government actually cut its overtime costs last month.
The time has passed when public employees can be largely spared the effects of a disastrous economic decline.
It’s encouraging to see some local government workers place the preservation of their colleagues’ jobs and vital services ahead of cost-of-living raises when the cost of living isn’t rising.