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Cut Link Between State Unions' Power, Pay

How Can Taxpayers Regain The Upper Hand Over State Workers' Compensation?

The Hartford Courant

May 8, 2011

Authors: Brian Clemow

Perhaps you noticed that when then Mayor Dannel Malloy ran for governor in 2006 he lost in a primary to another mayor, John DeStefano Jr., who had solid union support. However, when Mr. Malloy ran again in 2010, this time with the endorsement of state employee unions, he won.

Apparently having 50,000 potential donors, campaign workers and voters (not to mention their families) on your side is no small advantage when running for office. This is nothing new and should come as no surprise.

But therein lies a problem. Public employee unions simply have too much political power. They can influence gubernatorial races and the makeup of the General Assembly. In fact, some key legislative leaders are themselves current or former union officials.

Private sector unions are active in politics, too. However, their influence is much less, in part because only about one in 10 workers belong to a union, while all but a handful of state and local government employees in Connecticut are unionized.

More important, private sector employees don't have a say in who becomes the CEO or board chairman of their company. Public sector employees do, in effect, and this has resulted in their obtaining benefits that the average taxpayer can only dream about.

While Gov. Malloy is making a laudable effort to extract material concessions from the state employee unions, he faces a daunting task in trying to regain ground given up by his predecessors over many years. In most cases unions aren't willing to agree to such "give-backs," and perhaps we shouldn't expect them to. After all, unions are in business to benefit their dues-paying members (especially the most senior ones), not the taxpaying public.

Expecting unions to give up billions in wages and benefits to avoid layoffs of relatively few recently hired members is no more realistic than expecting the CEO of a corporation not to maximize profits for the benefit of its shareholders. That's their job.

The difference is, in the case of private enterprise, there are built-in constraints. If a product gets too expensive or a service doesn't provide value, customers can choose to buy elsewhere or not to buy at all. As federal, state and local taxpayers, we don't have that option.

So how do we deal with this problem? We need to revamp the framework for public sector collective bargaining in ways that take into consideration the differences between government at any level and the private sector.

In the 1960s, when Connecticut and other states passed laws authorizing public sector bargaining, the focus was almost exclusively on the right to strike. In its wisdom, the General Assembly substituted binding arbitration, which in retrospect was a big mistake. It has made it almost impossible to modify lock-step wage progression, overly generous health insurance, and unsupportable retirement benefits for public employees.

One solution would be to eliminate bargaining over these subjects. Federal employees have had unions and collective bargaining since the 1970s, but these issues are off the table. Another would be to give cities and towns veto power over arbitration awards. State government already has that right, but has only used it once, and that was almost 20 years ago. Requiring a legislative vote on each agreement would at least let taxpayers know who is responsible for its costs.

No doubt there are lots of approaches worth considering. The point is, we need a public dialogue about the future of collective bargaining for state and local government employees. The fact that this subject hasn't even been raised in the General Assembly as legislators grapple with our current multibillion-dollar budget gap speaks volumes about the political power of public employee unions. Perhaps it's time for the rest of us to speak up.

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