|Public employee unions are a hot issue around the country. As local and state governments and school districts struggle to balance their budgets and meet basic needs of their residents, the costs of wages and benefits for unionized public employees are raised more frequently. It might even be an issue in Fort Collins this fall during School Board elections.
Unionization of government workers has been a huge focus of organized labor, to the point that in 2009, for the first time in our nation’s history, membership in public sector unions exceeded that in private sector unions.
The basic difference between these two flavors of unionization is that private sector unions have an enlightened self-interest in the financial health of the companies or industry sectors where their members work. Make unreasonable demands that fatally cripple the competitiveness of your employer and you can find yourself unemployed.
In contrast, members of public unions work for what amount to monopolies. Instead of bargaining over limited profits, they are negotiating for a bigger share of tax dollars and have a big incentive to elect people to office who are friendly to their interests. The result has been very generous benefit packages that are increasingly difficult for taxpayers to sustain.
If you have an interest in learning more about this issue, you might look at a study on public unions that was recently published by Eileen Norcross, George Mason University.
The local tie-in to all of this is twofold. First, Fort Collins municipal government, thanks to an enlightened and vigilant electorate, has avoided the crushing costs of public unions. At a Special Election September 12, 2006 voters overwhelmingly defeated collective bargaining for police officers and other police department employees. The issue lost 65 percent to 35 percent.
Unbowed, public union proponents petitioned a broader measure onto the June 10, 2008 ballot. Voters said no by an even bigger margin: 71 percent to 29 percent.
Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce leaders led the fight to defeat both measures. By turning these measures down, local residents helped avoid the problems that plague many other communities.
The second tie-in is tight school district and state budgets and the upcoming Poudre School Board elections in November. Four seats are up for election. For the most part, the teacher’s union has dominated the School Board. They have been supported by union-friendly state legislators who have changed state law to require even more local tax money to flow into the state retirement system known as PERA, the Public Employee’s Retirement Association. (Denver Post Columnist Mike Rosen does a good job of explaining the problems with PERA in his May 26 column.)
Good, accountable teachers who are well-compensated and a strong school district that is appropriately funded are extremely important to the community. To accomplish those goals in the years ahead will require wise use of limited resources. It’s more important than ever to scrutinize how tax monies are being spent. That means having a School Board willing to ask the hard questions and make hard decisions.
It’s now May and the School Board elections are in November. If you want to make a big difference for your community, one way to do that is to serve on your School Board and bring a district-supportive but fiscally critical eye to the group. If you’re interested in running, or at least interested enough to talk about it, drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.