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Governors in states stretching from New York to Florida to Tennessee are trying to get creative in balancing their budgets -- some say on the backs of workers -- as they propose that government employees pay more out of their own pockets for pensions and health care.

Of course, Wisconsin is the most prominent story right now, but other states are sure to see nasty fights between government executives and unionized labor. Here's a GREAT article for more background on Wisconsin and beyond:

And unions aren't only powerful in states - Federal and local unions allow huge blocks of workers to organize and advocate for legislative or management initiatives that limit workers rights and benefits. In fact, I just spoke at AFGE a couple weeks ago and learned that they were in favor of the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) ruling that ultimately ended the Federal Career Internship Program (FCIP). I was a huge fan and was very sad to see it go.

It's not an easy issue and I'm persuade me:

Do unions help or hurt government?

Is there any middle ground for executives and unions in austere budget periods?






Tags: "American, AFGE, American, American Federation of Government Employees, American, AFGE, , Employees", Federation, Government, Wisconsin, of, More…unions

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All the unions I have watched organize in local government were created because employees no longer wanted to be subject to the whims or lack of leadership of elected officials. A union prevents newly elected officials from getting rid of everyone so they can re-staff with people they choose. And it prevents elected officials from playing around with the income of employees because they don't want to pass the cost of doing business along to citizens who benefit from the services.

But I have seen examples of this that were both a benefit and a detriment to government. It's a benefit when it prevents professional, hard-working people who have a lot of knowledge about the agency from being fired for no good reason. In these cases everyone who worked and knew how to manage the agency is let go and replaced by people who usually have no background in government. Unfortunately citizens do not view this as a problem because there is a strange and fundamentally incorrect public perception that it is so easy to run a government that anyone can do it. But basically it is a multi-million dollar operation upon which our whole community depends. Getting rid of everyone in an agency is like firing everyone from a hospital and hiring all new people who have no experience in the medical field. It creates chaos for about four years until some of the people start to figure it out - many never do.  Which brings me to the negative effect of the union. It is always a bad thing when the union protects a poor performing employee who was only hired by a past elected official as a favor to one of their friends. This employee never tries to figure it out - they know they don't have to. And other employees leave them alone because if they don't, they risk getting in trouble from the elected official.


As for the salaries, because government is a multi-million dollar operation upon which we all depend, we need professional people there who know what they are doing. (It always surprises me that the public seems to have so little concern in wanting to make sure educated, experienced, and professional people are hired/elected to oversee the management of their tax dollars and their community.) But to hire people like that, government has to pay at least close to what industry pays or they will not attract the people they need to run efficiently and effectively.

The other side of this is that it costs money to run a government - our agencies are faced with the same costs of doing business as everyone else. So when costs go up, rates or taxes must go up or the government can't pay bills. Unfortunately, it's easier for elected officials to neglect to give cost of living raises or to fund pensions than to pass a rate or tax increase or cut their special projects/programs. So this brings us to the problem today - elected officials are trying to subsidize the cost of running government with employee salaries and pensions rather than cut their special projects or programs or raise taxes or rates. So employees organize to try to prevent this poor management decision. The only negative side I have seen with this is that some unions manage to negotiate wage increases or benefits that are not reasonable. And again, that is the fault of the people at the negotiating table - most of the time, the elected officials.

The other solution I have seen elected officials propose to avoid this whole situation is out-sourcing, but in most cases, for daily operations, it is more costly to outsource than to have staff. What elected officials fail to consider is that in outsourcing, they are still paying wages, pensions, benefits, etc but now they are also paying a profit. For example in our state, for state-funded engineering contracts, the state and local government are paying cost plus almost a 3X multiplier. But this method is accepted by the public because they don't see the wage cost - only a bill from a company. They don't understand that with in-house staff they see all the actual costs while with a bill from a company they don't see the wage and benefit costs and costs not normally paid by government for in-house work. Such as the cost to maintain a much nicer facility than government would have maintained, bonuses, marketing costs, etc.

Anyway, the solution is probably sitting down in a reasonable manner in a workshop environment trying to target exactly what services are essential and need funding and then coming up with a reasonable salary/benefit structure. When the majority is reasonable, this works, but too often, I have seen when the majority, on both sides, is not willing to give up their own agenda for the good of the public.


Excellent summary above and some very on target remarks. If I may add the government worker in most states and circumstances is the very easy answer to saving budget dollars on the surface. There should be some serious discussion about the impacts that such measures as furloughs, salary freezes and the like do to productivity. Employees who provided excellent service to the American public daily are now taking time to discuss and ponder their fates when it comes to household expenses and family budgets. The narrow focus of just freezing pay and potential furloughs are not being considered for the true final costs.


A discussion must occur among all Americans about the value of our expectations. For the services each of us receive which ones that benefit you are you willing not to have tomorrow. This argument is bigger than the members of the union who are seeking fairness and transparency for their constituents. It is larger than condemning all government workers with the terminology of poor performance or wasteful spending. The reality is what is our personal expectation concerning what we want local, state and federal governments to do for us. I do not think the discussions ever get to that point. They always tend to gravitate to blame fixing and finger-pointing.


It goes beyond just the unions it actually comes down to what are our expectations and what are we willing to pay for them.

The job of a union is to protect all employees; unfortunately this includes the incompetent ones.  The issue becomes a lack of willingness to mitigate this by making sure there are clear enforceable metrics for employees to meet. 


I will support unions in my county until we pay a living wage.  To me, it is unacceptable that we have county employees, working full time, who qualify for food stamps. 

Well said, Pam. On the whole, worker unions are a tremendous benefit to government for all the reasons you cited. Any negatives, like alleged protection of poor performers, are isolated cases, in my experience. Overall, the benefits to the public far outweigh the negatives. You are correct in stating that the public has a distorted and inaccurate view of what it takes to run a government. As to the question of middle ground, I believe that open, above-board good-faith negotiation on the part of executives will go a mighty long way. Union members are well aware of the budget situation, and, if asked and sincerely listened to, will likely have useful suggestions on how to reduce spending on non-essentials. Bluster and bombast, and announcing a conclusion in the media before even beginning to bargain in good faith, as seen in Wisconsin, won't work.

In my opinion, Unions in government aren't too much different from unions in the private sector. They have their pros and cons...the pros being protecting workers from management decisions that can be seen as 'harmful' to the employees,(outright firings, wage cuts, etc) the cons, the perception of them holding work 'hostage' to unrealistic demands. (for example, in an area where the average salary is $20 dollars an hour, to have a union demand that all their members MUST be paid at least $30 an hour, even for unskilled labor...all that does is generate a resentful attitude towards the union and its members and the population as a whole. I know we have a union here that has had a habit of going on strike, often with the attitude of 'what i'm paid isn't enough to live on'....well what they're getting paid for their assembly line work is more than I get paid with my college not much sympathy from me. I tend to feelt he same way that I felt about pro ball players whent they said 'hey, my 175,000 base salary just isn't enough'. You don't want it, I'll take it :) )


Union leaders need to be cognizant of their surroundings and just the message that they are sending to the public as a whole.


I think there is the potential for a middle ground, but all sides need to be willing to look at the other side of the issue and attempt to understand them as well. If a state is in the need to make budget cuts, instead of outright digging their heels in and saying 'heck no you won't cut these peoples salary', maybe the union needs to say 'ok, don't like it, but how can we work with you to accomplish your goal while not totally sticking it to the employees?'


Government employees are often powerless. They don't get raises unless the legislature passes a law. They don't get any sort of bonuses unless the legislature passes a law. Some positions are protected by civil service protection, but others aren't. Unions can give employees a voice, but the union does need to be careful about what it says and how it says it.


As a state employee, some members of the public already hate me. I, in their eyes, sit on my butt all day. I take 4-5 breaks a day, i accomplish nothing, I am vastly overpaid for what i do. etc.


Well a union can combat that. They can educate and, in a way, be a PR engine. This is what this office does. This is the skills it takes. This is what it'd cost to have the same thing outsourced. This is why these people are needed. They can represent people, not just in the 'don't you dare cut their salary' attitude, but in a 'this is why these people and jobs are needed'.



I glad to see this topic.  I have been wondering a similar thought.  I believe in unions and as John points out stereotypes of union worker are the exception to the role.  I am a union member and most of our activities are targeted at securing a good working life for our members.  In Colorado, we are looking at pay cuts, furloughs, reduction in state contributions to pensions, and changing the pension program to a defined contribution program.  In all cases, state workers are illustrated as over paid and that are not suffering like their private industry bothers and sisters.  One particular debate that bugs me is the pension debate.  State and local worker are always portrayed as living the good life because they have a defined benefit pension program and no one in the private industry has such pension programs.  The only problem is that private industry worker do have access to a define benefit program that a great number of state and local worker do not.  It is call social security.  In addition, most private industry worker lost their pension programs because of mismanagement of those programs by the companies that offered them. 


At the end of the day, government worker are the easy target of the budget debates.  The problem is that most government workers are willing to sacrifice, but these workers also want to be included in the discussion.  Of course, it is easier to not include the workers and to demonize the civil servant that work for the public good. 


As one of my managers once said about the union, you can either see the union as this external force or you can see it as people.  If we remember that unions are made up of people, then we can talk about budget in a constructive manner.  As a recently promoted state employee who may have to give up my union status, I will remember my union brothers and sister are people who just want to work for the people of the state of Colorado.  At the end of the day, we are all colleague and we are all working to the benefit of the people we serve. 


So I would say that at the end of the day, unionized employees are a good thing when we stop stereotyping and start actually talking to each other as people. 


In solidarity,


This is a really important point: people not caricatures. It's too easy for managers and media to portray a group of people with one broad brush stroke...which is why I'd like to see a marketing campaign that is essentially government employees saying what they do, then ending with "...and I'm your neighbor / brother / sister / friend." We are all Americans doing the best we can to make our nation great.

Sometimes unions need to be strong and other times they need to step back and see the bigger picture. They are tax payers too after all and the more they fight for benefits for the few, the more the rest of us, along with the few will have to pay. In Wisconsin, I think the day of the big state pension needs to be over. New employees have the most to lose but I'm certain there will be a new retirement program to replace the old. I do have to say that the federal unions I'm familiar with are simply there to save worthless employee's jobs. Most honest employees that work hard and are able to get along with all types of managers don't have any problems that require union help and most of them can usually defend themselves and don't need to cry for the unions to save them.

As a former officer in a local government employee association, I fel that we provided a great benefit not only for the employees but for the elected officials, their appointees and the people they represented by provided a knowledge, continuity, and focual point for discussing employment issues.  While the city was not required to bargin collectively, they did.  It took a lot of effort outside of my job to learn about the legal issues, job elements, histories, and stories of the many people who worked throughout the agency.

I think a great middle exist with forward-thinking unions that embrace change and technology while focusing on the core mission of protecting good workers.  I think the struggle exists when unions try to protect an old model - for example in one city the union was feverently against Blackberrys as they consider it time off the clock or trying to protect folks who don't want to embrace a new way of working (whether technology or what have you)
In Massachusetts, a particular form of the cost versus union rights
issue is a plan to combine cities and towns in a large state-wide
health care pool that would save substantial money. I can't take the
time here to cover the collective bargaining issues, but the plan is
provoking strong opposition among the unions who are afraid their
health benefits will be cut. A very progressive pro-union friend of
mine in my town (Arlington) claims the trade-offs will come out pretty
even, and that opposition by the unions is based on a
misunderstanding, at least in Arlington.

One aspect that interests me is that the teachers union would rather
have a dozen member laid off than give way on the health-care pool. I
suppose their reasoning is that lay-offs and hirings come in cycles,
but that a substantive change in how benefits are allocated would be very
hard to reverse any time in the future.

I am pro-Union. 


The current top-down hierarchical model that in place is heavily weighted in favor of management, with problems ranging from gaps in the whistleblower protection laws, to outdated, obsolete or non-existent processes for making decisions on topics from budget cuts to employee ratings to disciplinary actions, etc etc.


Without Unions, there would be no balance of power in Gov't. 


They are not a luxury item in today's government, they are a necessity.


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