Reader JC sent a link to Young Conor Freidersdorf talking about public employee unions. I know how you all feel about Young Conor, but since I haven’t read anything he’s written in a while, I took a look.
Conor brings up the example of San Jose, which has huge pension obligations and just voted for a pretty sweeping pension and benefit reduction plan. In the piece, Conor hits the high points of the issues people have with public sector unions: public safety unions that negotiated 90% salary on retirement at 55 even for upper management making six figures, prison unions that exert influence on prison building and sentencing laws so their membership keeps growing, and terrible teachers that can’t be fired.
He also has some interesting anecdotal evidence about the firefighters in Rancho Cucamonga, where he worked for a local paper. By his telling, their union held politicians hostage by campaigning against any politician who didn’t vote for what the union wanted. They did so by the nefarious tactic of sending out mailers with pictures of firefighters and the candidate. Considering that this town is on the edge of the mountains in Southern California and firefighters have to pretty regularly risk their lives to save property built insanely far up in the foothills, it’s interesting that Conor doesn’t examine the possibility that the interests of the voters and the union were actually fairly well aligned. Conor identifies a couple of important issues (the cozy relationship led to a “frat house” environment, and overtime and fringe benefits that allowed both parties to report an artificially low base salary), but since Conor was a journalist there, I’m sure he exposed both of those issues in hard-hitting watchdog pieces.
Kidding aside, I’ll buy the notion that there are some serious issues with the way that public union pensions are negotiated, and that negotiators on both sides have become adept at pushing off obligations into the far-off future. But Conor’s solution is the usual radical one: defined contribution rather than defined benefit pensions, no job protection over and above that provided by law, and no negotiation over seniority. And it’s a radical one in a piece where very few facts are on offer. Setting anecdotes aside, how much bigger are the wage and benefit packages of the public sector unions, when you compare a lifetime of public and private sector employment, and understand that nobody wants a 65 year old firefighter coming to their house to save their kids? Why can’t we enact laws that are tougher about the pension assumptions that govern collective bargaining, so municipalities start paying now instead of later for pension plans? And what’s a reasonable amount of job protection for teachers, who get a hell of a lot more scrutiny from some unenlightened parties (parents) than your average mid-level corporate manager?
If Conor wants me to come back and plow through another of his long pieces, perhaps he can address those issues and throw in a few facts to boot.