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Paul Jenkins: Proposed oridinance does not go far enough to abolish unions

Paul Jenkins

Anchorage public employee union bigwigs are fuming over an Assembly ordinance that would rein in their prodigious appetites for property taxpayers' hard-earned cash. It is, they claim, rushed, poorly crafted, over the top.

They are wrong. Reform is vital. It is well beyond time the city modernized and upgraded its labor policies to save money, streamline the process and benefit -- finally! -- property owners.

As it stands, the city's relationship with its unions is inefficient, duplicative and wasteful. There are more than 600 combinations of a la carte benefits. There is a salary bump in the fire department if a firefighter mends turnout gear. An 8 percent pay hike if a cop or firefighter gets any bachelor's degree, which the city underwrites. Scores of police and others making easily more than $100,000 a year. Some get this; others, that.

The city's labor code last was amended in 1989, when gas was 97 cents a gallon, George Herbert Walker Bush was elected president and the Berlin Wall was torn down. Much has changed.

The ordinance that has the city's nine unions steaming is AO-2013-37, proposed by Mayor Dan Sullivan, Assembly Chairman Ernie Hall and Vice Chairwoman Jennifer Johnston. A public hearing is scheduled Wednesday.

The measure would rein in pay increases, end city workers' right to strike -- police and firefighters are forbidden now -- introduce "managed competition" and channel stalled labor talks to the Assembly rather than a third-party arbitrator, leaving final say to elected officials. (The city's unions believe the Assembly is too stupid for this task.) There are other possibilities, too -- third-party, all-or-nothing arbitration, for instance.

The real problem is the ordinance does not abolish public sector unions -- only 22 states allow them -- ending de facto, sanitized corruption. Now unions and their organizations elect people who then vote on their contracts. One need only remember Mark Begich's labor contract fiasco to understand how it works.

Public unions exist to the detriment of taxpayers, hand union bosses far too much political power and encourage spending. Politicians fear them and unions have guaranteed raises, generous salaries and cushy benefits generally unavailable to the peons who pick up the tab and depend on the private economy's vagaries to survive.

Even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a staunch friend of labor, George Meany, the AFL-CIO's first president, and former New York Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia balked at collective bargaining for government workers. They saw the potential problems. Nonetheless, with liberal Wisconsin leading the way, many governments charged ahead.

States now find themselves $4 trillion in the red largely because of generous pay and benefits negotiated by unions and elected shills who were supposed to look out for taxpayers' interests. Then, there are unfunded pension liabilities for retired government employees. It will only get worse. California is the poster state. Broke. Hobbled by union control.

There are statistics and graphs for all this -- and human costs. A few years back, a woman in her 80s called me, sobbing. She and her husband, also in his 80s, were ill and living on a small, fixed income. They no longer could pay their property tax and would have to sell their home. I hear her voice when unions bemoan how bad things will get if Sullivan et al., get their way.

This city cannot afford unions as things are now. If we are going to allow them, things must change. The city budget is $476 million. Fifty-four percent is for salaries and benefits. In 2009, the average total cost for a general city worker here was $92,727. Now? $116,000. In five years? Or 10? Who next will have to sell their home? The National Employment Law Project says wages have declined slightly in the United States since 2009. Not for city unions.

The Wall Street Journal, in a 2010 editorial titled "The Public-Union Ascendancy," noted that then, for the first time, government union members outnumbered those in the private economy.

"[T]his has become a major problem for the U.S. economy and small-d democratic governance. It may be the single biggest problem. The agenda for American political reform needs to include the breaking of public unionism's power to capture an ever-larger share of private income."

In this city, AO-2013-37 is a first, tiny step in that direction.

Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com. These views do not represent the editorial stance of the DailyPlanet.


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