|“Kill the bill!”|
Angry public-sector workers are protesting at the capitol in Madison, Wisc., where newly elected Republican Gov. Scott Walker is proposing legislation that would significantly weaken government unions. The Cheesehead protest follows similar outcries over other governors who are also playing tough with the unions. Chris Christie (R-NJ), Andrew Cuomo (D-NY), Jerry Brown (D-CA) and even our own Dan Malloy (D-CT) have also asked for significant concessions.
I’m heartened that even Democratic governors are active in telling the unions that public-sector compensation packages are unsustainable. Let me be clear: I do not think public employees have salaries that are terribly out-of line, adjusted for education levels, with the private sector. The problem lies mostly in the legacy costs of state workers who contribute relatively little to their health insurance and pension funds and, regardless of market conditions, receive guaranteed benefits, allowing them to retire at an age that makes private-sector workers insanely jealous.
Even worse, in Connecticut and New York, retirement benefits are based on the last two years of an employee’s gross wages (including overtime). I’ve spoken with retired state troopers here in Connecticut who tell me they piled on the overtime their last two years on the job (with the encouragement of their supervisors) so that they can retire for life on six-figures or close to it.
And of course, there is the infamous case of the Yonkers cop who, thanks to overtime spiking, retired at 44 on a more than $100,000 annual pension after working only 20 years with a top base salary of $74,000. This has got to stop.
Having said that, I think Wisconsin’s Walker is going too far. He wants to strip the public unions of their rights to collectively bargain for all but their wages. And if they wanted a raise greater than the consumer price index, then such an increase would have to be approved by taxpayers at a statewide referendum. Plus, he conveniently exempted two typically Republican constituencies — police and firefighters’ unions — from that very requirement. Hmmm …
But any change in pension benefits will only result in savings many years down the line. Right now, the unions will have to either make significant wage and benefit concessions or face huge lay-offs. Given their track records so far, the union bosses would prefer lay-offs. So be it.
P.S. On the way home from shuttling one of my children, I heard an NPR reporter refer to the proposed Wisconsin legislation as “anti-union.” Couldn’t it just as plausibly be called “pro-taxpayer?”