Public-Sector Unions Need to ‘Be the Solution’

02.04.2011
Issues & Policies

What do the recent fortunes of America’s labor unions mean for Connecticut’s public-sector union employees? Plenty, says a leading progressive leader who spoke in Hartford this week on the challenges of keeping a skilled workforce in the state and region.
The declining membership and influence of private-sector labor unions should give their public-sector colleagues pause as state government looks for ways to solve its huge fiscal crisis, according to Barry Bluestone, dean of Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs.
Bluestone spoke at a forum sponsored by the Partnership for Strong Communities called “How the States Will Fight for Young Workers and Economic Growth.”
Taxpayers are going to have to start seeing unionized state employees as part of the solution—not the problem, says Bluestone. And he recommended several ways to accomplish that.
‘Privileged status’ gone
Times have changed dramatically for unions and so have the public’s perceptions of them. Bluestone has seen the changes up close, first as the son of Irving Bluestone, a key lieutenant to the legendary United Auto Workers (UAW) leader Walter Reuther, as well as in his own career as labor leader and economist.
The UAW erred, said Bluestone, by thinking that its tremendous size and power would always shield it from the nation’s economic storms. “The industry and the union were so arrogant that both felt their privileged status would last forever,” said Bluestone.
Today, however, fewer than 12% of workers in the U.S. are union members, and only about 7% of those are in the private sector.
By contrast, 36% of government employees nationwide are unionized and Connecticut has the second-highest rate of unionized state employees in the U.S., with more than 64%.
But state and local governments throughout the nation are facing massive budget deficits. The cost of government services is spiraling out of control, and extravagant, long-term commitments to government retirees are crippling many states’ fiscal futures.
People are starting to focus on the disparity between public-sector compensation and costs versus those in the private sector, said Bluestone.
Nationally, the cost of providing state and local services is 1.5 times the cost of private services; total compensation for government workers versus is 1.44 times higher than in the private sector, and public-sector service non-management and non-professional staff compensation is 2.2 times higher than that of the private sector.
As taxpayers absorb how well unionized government workers are doing versus the rest of the workforce, unions could see more difficult times ahead. “How will state and local governments survive the … crisis without taking on their unions?” asked Bluestone.
State governments are in fact starting to focus on reforming inefficient government programs and bureaucracies, regionalizing public services and modifying public-sector union compensation packages.
‘New bargain’
Bluestone says it’s time for a “grand new bargain where unions play a greater role in improving service, quality and innovation in return for greater job security and public respect.”
That “grand new bargain” should include reforming outdated public-sector work rules and pensions, advocating regionalism and more effective state services, and promoting education reforms—efforts that would find strong support in the business community, which has been promoting greater fiscal responsibility and streamlining state government for many years.
The bottom line for public-sector unions, says Bluestone, is that they have to make a better case to their consumers—taxpayers—that they are becoming part of the solution, not staying part of the problem.
For more information, contact CBIA’s Pete Gioia at 860.244.1945 or pete.gioia@cbia.com.

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