Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Looking for the Logic in Government-Union Relations

Before the financial crisis began exposing the shaky foundations of California's economy in 2007, it was hard to imagine a day when governments in the Golden State would actually contest the pay and benefit demands of their unionized employees. Yet in many, many corners of the state, that day is indeed upon us. Unfortunately, the rights of the taxpayers actually footing the bill for the promises of politicians aren't nearly as sacred here as you might hope.

On one hand, the taxpayers in Riverside County appear to have it pretty good. According to this report in the Press Enterprise, negotiations between the County and the local SIEU failed to produce a new agreement. On Monday, the union voted overwhelmingly to reject Riverside's contract offer, and to authorize a general strike. As such, Tuesday saw county officials impose their latest contract on the 5,800 employees represented by SIEU, under which these workers will contribute 3% of salary toward their pensions beginning in December, a rate than jumps to 8% in 2013. Future employees of Riverside County will see drastically reduced pensions under the contract. This is just the latest such move by the county, which imposed salary and pension cuts on its sheriffs and managers unions earlier this year. Yet with the recession hitting the Inland Empire especially hard and the county budget $80 million in the red, it's heartening to see someone diverging from the more typical "pass everything on to the taxpayer without making tough decisions" approach.

Unfortunately, responsible governments can only do as much as the courts will allow, and any effort to protect taxpayers at the expense of unions has to confront the will of judges. Who are, of course, appointed by politicians who are FTEs of organized labor. On Monday, Orange County found out that a government employee's belief that they're entitled to a lucrative benefit for life can constitute an enforceable contract, even if there's nothing in print to suggest that they're correct. And yesterday, the city of Costa Mesa learned that a written contract with unions is worthless if the unions decide they don't like a particular part of it. We've written a lot about Costa Mesa's effort to avert a financial crisis by outsourcing a large chunk of public jobs, which has made them a target of legal action by the city's Employees Association. Even though its contract with Costa Mesa allows for outsourcing city jobs and the six-month notice the union received, the Employees Association sued for breach of contract. And yesterday, a judge refused the city's request to throw the suit out. It's not clear that the union's argument will pass muster at trial next year, but it's not a good sign that such an obviously absurd claim has been allowed to stand.


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