Blackberries? Tasty, but untended vines choke out the garden, topple the fence and eventually cover the house. Just like unregulated capital, it eliminates competition and overpowers the marketplace. Power in our democracy? Balanced among three branches of government.
So in berries, business and democracy, unchecked power is dangerous. Maybe this is also true for public-sector unions.
Government and citizens have a deal: Government provides services; citizens pay. Elected officials monitor the mix of services and their quality and cost, gauging how much the public will pay, and for what. Elected officials implement their decisions through managers who in turn deploy labor.
For decades after World War II, the deal worked. The public sector created millions of family-wage jobs and spearheaded economic justice. Today the public sector is the healthiest branch of organized labor.
But the blackberries are choking out the garden. Labor costs go up even though tax revenue is down, baby boomers are taking their defined-benefit pensions and service demands rise. Forget the garden; the vines are on the fence. Cities across the country face bankruptcy. Services are cut. The whole deal is at risk.
What’s a government to do? Close libraries; raise rates. Sell bridges and freeways to investors who build and maintain them at lower cost. Or take Camden, N.J. Please.
Affectionately called America’s deadliest city, Camden is disbanding its unionized police force and plans to join a non-union, countywide law enforcement consortium. Supposedly pay and benefits will stay the same, but management will decide hiring and schedules. Civilians – not sworn officers – will handle desk jobs.
Locally, public employees are an elite. On average in Pierce County they make 30 percent more than people in the private sector. That’s $52,000 a year compared with $40,000 (Washington State Data Book). In King County, the private-sector people make 5 percent more ($58,000 public, $61,000 private). Sure, King County has those big companies. Isn’t that even more reason to worry about public costs outstripping our beleaguered private sector?
Look, unions aren’t powerful because they’re evil; they grow stronger because it’s what organizations do. It’s in their genetic code, like blackberries or capital.
First they bargain working conditions, wages and benefits. Then they bargain management prerogatives: supervisory span of control, transfers, the use of equipment. Managers are hamstrung, budgets collapse and elected officials seem impotent.
Seem. If electeds want to save the fence and reclaim the garden, there’s a lot they can do. Here are some suggestions.
• Decide which jobs require exceptional talent and which are generic. Pay well for the first few and below average for the rest. Forget across-the-board increases; jobs aren’t equally competitive – or equally important.
• Strip management prerogatives out of contracts. A principal doesn’t want a teacher? The teacher is gone. The police chief, not the union, decides how many officers sergeants should manage.
• Insist that employees pay the market share of health care. Until recently, City of Tacoma employees paid nothing for insurance. Zero. Now they pay a small fraction of the private sector equivalent. This is unsustainable.
• Tie cost-of-living raises to changes in private-sector pay changes. Eliminate the 30 percent gap.
• Create a dual pay scale like the airlines did for pilots. Current people keep the current scale; new people have a lower one.
• Reduce the scope of the Civil Service Board. Let it govern fire and police as required by state law, instead of all employees. And let members be appointed by management as in most cities.
• Re-negotiate seniority. Life changes fast, and senior employees – especially on the front lines – become outdated. Let’s respect their experience; but let’s provide the most contemporary service possible.
I know it’s not this simple. And I’m not a union hater. Really. But I care about government. There are worse things that could happen to public employees than a little fine-tuning before the vines climb the house.
If the deal breaks down, we’re all in trouble.Ken Miller of Tacoma is one of six reader columnists whose work appears on this page. He has been a corporate HR director and commissioner for the Tacoma Housing Authority. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.