Sunday, March 6, 2011

Slippery Times

The New York Times takes the “reasonable” route: criticizing Governor Walker of Wisconsin for his extremism, it says that it’s not anti-worker or anti-union to say that New York State workers are overpaid and need to accept curbs on wages, pensions, and rules that level the playing field at the bargaining table.
Fine: There are stupid rules governing pensions that allow state workers to pad their pensions in their last years by working lots of overtime. This, of course, takes the collusion of management, but it’s hardly fundamental to the budget crisis faced by the state. It is good, however, for anti-worker propaganda, which is the best reason for unions to throw this perk—taken by a tiny percentage of state workers—overboard.

But to say that state workers need to pay more into their pensions because these pensions are so costly to the state is to argue that state workers should take a cut in their take-home pay in order to make up for Wall Street’s shenanigans.  And to suggest, as the Times does, that we might “need” to move from defined-benefit to defined-contribution plans like 401(k)s, is to court the real possibility that we will have loads of elderly poor in the not-too-distant future. The Times editors acknowledge that 401(k)-type plans shift retirement risk onto employees, but they don’t really follow up with what that could mean. As it is, the average New York City employee’s pension is just $19,000.  Put that together with social security payments, and many retirees will still be paying more than 30 percent of their gross incomes on rent. That’s “outsized generosity” for you.
As for wages, the Times, which ought to know better, says that state employee pay outstripped private-sector pay by about $16,500 per year ($63,382 vs. $47,947 in 2009) without being sure they were comparing apples to apples.  Most public workers earn more than private workers both because their unions haven’t been crushed as they have in the private sector, and because they are, on average, better educated.  That is to say, a greater proportion of the public sector workforce is better educated than the proportion of the private-sector workforce. We all benefit from this.

But in order to really think about this clearly, we have to acknowledge that a great deal of lower-level work in municipal services has been privatized or pushed onto welfare-to-work programs, volunteering, or community-service sentences (e.g., parks maintenance, sanitation crews, street cleaning). This lowers the pool of less-well-paid public workers, and skews the statistics. Moreover, it’s no good for the workers themselves, as what used to be a decent living in municipal work, supporting neighborhoods, is now a temporary, insecure job, incapable of supporting a household for very long.

The Times sophistry continues. Couched in completely appropriate calls for Governor Cuomo to tax the very rich a little more, it acknowledges the purpose of the Triborough Agreement while arguing that it should be scrapped. The Triborough Agreement keeps the terms of a contract in place even after it has expired. It means that the governor or the mayor cannot unilaterally change the terms of a contract after it has expired.  The Times explains:

[The Triborough Agreement] unique to New York, was a well-meaning attempt to give some balance to state unions, which by law are not allowed to strike and had no leverage to draw management to the table in flush years. The problem with the Triborough Amendment is that it gives the unions far less incentive to bargain, as we saw last year.

So the Times recommends amending the Triborough Agreement so that wages can be frozen once a contract expires. Apparently, the state’s and city’s workers weren’t willing to give up concessions that were being demanded of them rather high-handedly last year. Pity.

The problem is not just getting to the negotiating table. It’s bargaining in good faith. Without unions having the power to strike without risking disastrous consequences, neither the state nor the city have any incentive to bargain in good faith—at least not in election years.  Even with the Triborough Agreement. As a result, city and state workers often work for years without new contracts. The Triborough Agreement does balance the power a little bit. Taking it away will do the opposite.

The Times editors either clearly misunderstand collective bargaining agreements or they wish to mislead their readers.  If public-sector workers got raises of several percent over the past few years when private-sector workers were suffering, it’s because the contracts were negotiated when the state and city thought they could afford it.  But public workers have also gotten much smaller raises—or none at all—when times seemed tough, only to have the economy recover and leave them behind private-sector gains. Every contract has a lag effect, and with global capitalism going through more rapid boom and bust periods, the terms of public contracts are bound to clash sometimes with the exigencies of “the market.”

The Times’ solution? When, in good times, the editors suggest giving public workers a raise, we can talk.

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