It's time to end the alliance between politicians and public-sector unions

It's been a busy year for Acton Forum. I am in the middle of finishing up an article on Acton's property taxes, which I hope to publish in the next week or so, otherwise it will have to wait until later this summer. My efforts were distracted by several strange occurances in local town politics which temporarily got in the way.

In this article, I want to talk about this terrible path our town and our state are on, which was highlighted to me by the recent Acton teachers' union contract approval.

It is no secret that the public-sector unions are supported by the Democratic party and their many elected officials and candidates. Yet ordinary citizens also vote for Democrats. This has effectively turned us into a one-party state with dire consequences for taxpayers.

In Massachusetts, unions volunteer time and contribute money to Democrats who have agreed to support a particular agenda when it comes to public-employee unions. And that agenda is, very slowly, destroying the underlying fabric of our society. It is turning our state and local public employees from "workers" into "bosses," "leaders," or "partners" who are spending their time and money to enhance the pay and benefits of other state and local public employees by supporting local Democratic politicians (or getting involved themselves). And as their number and influence grows, the benefits grow even faster.

The concept that people without conflicts should be the ones deciding how much to pay our employees has been totally lost. Now, these decisions (for the School Committee, for example) are made by members that are highly partisan, some of whom are teachers or former teachers. And then when you go to Town Meeting, 25% of the voting audience works for the town or schools (See http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/acton-town-meeting-tainted-specia...). Is it any wonder that salaries and benefits continue to rise?

The underlying issue is that we allow public-sector unions to negotiate their pay and benefits with politicians who used to have no inherent vested interest in the outcome--therefore they didn't see their goal as to limit these increases. That was bad enough. But now, many politicians want to enhance the pay and benefits of these employees because that helps them get re-elected. The structure has gone from bad to much, much worse.

In the distant past, some of our public employees were not as well compensated as in the private sector, or they had dangerous jobs, or their jobs were important for society's success. So many political leaders have, over the years, gone along with this state of affairs. Now we have created a monster which is gobbling up the private-sector and demands higher taxes to pay for higher pay and benefits.

As our tax rates increase and new laws are passed to increase things like minimum wages or required healthcare benefits, the private sector finds it harder and harder to grow and then we see evidence all around us of overspending and overtaxation--huge debts and low economic growth.

When people try to compare private-sector wage-growth to public sector, they only look at the dollars. They don't look at the value of job security. The guy who starts out making $20,000 in the private sector may not be the same guy making $100,000 20 years later. Yet if you just look at "wage growth" you see $20,000 going to $100,000. In the public-sector, it is the same employee because of job security. Small raises compounded every year like clockwork eventually add up to high salaries.

STATE LAWS BENEFIT THE PUBLIC SECTOR UNIONS

Many of you are aware of this, but let me repeat the underlying cause in Massachusetts. It is a law (perhaps a series of laws) that allows a public union contract, once approved, to remain in effect until a new one is negotiated that supplants it.

Several months ago, the Acton teacher's union started picketing around town and at School Committee meetings to try to intimidate our already-coercible local elected officials into approving a new contract. One of their false claims was that they were "working without a contract." If only it were so.

Instead, the reality is that all of their benefits, all of their current pay, and even increases for steps and lanes were enshrined and every teacher got an increase on July 1st due to another "step," and yet they still felt they were being abused by the local political process even as others in the private sector have been struggling for the past five years.

Why do we have this state of affairs? It isn't the fault of the local School Committee which has very narrow parameters over what it can do. In simple terms, it really can't fix anything. Any "cutback" it negotiates must be approved by the union, which obviously blocks any net pay or benefit decrease.

The problem (at least in Massachusetts) is state law which doesn't allow all items to be put back on the table during negotiations time. It doesn't allow changes that are now common in the private sector to be extended to the public sector. And this system is being protected by our elected officials who serve at the state level.

It should be mentioned that the system of "arbitration" is also a big plus for the unions. That system eventually forces a large pay increase on taxpayers.

When a local Democratic candidate runs for office, the support they get is truly amazing, especially considering that most races are extremely lopsided. Our State Senator, Jamie Eldridge, started off as a state rep and even ran for Congress once. Eldridge has raised over $1 million for his political campaigns, according to the office of Campaign and Political Finance. (You can look up any candidate's filings and list of donors at
http://ocpf.cloudapp.net/Reports/SearchItems).

Besides money, the state and local unions provide labor. You get calling banks, you get volunteers handing out literature. And then they do supportive mailings. I get about three postcards per election cycle supporting Rep. Jen Benson, paid for by the state teacher's union.

Most voters in Acton lean Democratic. Obama won Acton with 60% of the vote last time (a vote I hope many regret now, but that is wishful thinking. No amount of bad news from our federal leadership will make these true believers doubt their cause.)

As pay, current benefits, and future benefit promises continue to rise well past what one can expect in the private sector, you'd think there'd start to be a backlash. Wouldn't someone question more 4% annual raises to teachers after coming off (perhaps) a five-year recession and when inflation is less than 2% per year? Yet the vote to approve the new teacher's contract was unanimous. Not surprisingly, there are zero representatives on the School Committee who think their job is to watch out for taxpayers and slow down this continual growth in compensation. At least none were in evidence during the final vote. (For an article on the contract terms, see http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/ab-school-committee-approves-new-...).

Acton's Finance Committee plays no role in this process. They give no advice, they set no standards, they ask no questions, and they have no comments.

One day, when I'm long gone, all this will have to turn around. But when the School Committee prevents the public from asking questions, getting answers, and shining a light on the true increases that are being given, it will be that much harder to change things. This is why I was so interested in having a good public process to approve new teachers' contracts. The vote wouldn't have changed this year and perhaps not in three years, but maybe in 10 or 20. (See http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/schools-underestimate-teacher-sal... and http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/ab-school-committee-violates-poli...).

In the meantime, we keep re-electing our state reps and senators who keep protecting their core constituents, the members of the public-sector unions.

This cycle needs to be broken. The only hope I see other than an economic meltdown which will require drastic action is voters willing to ignore the self-serving campaign literature they receive each election cycle and voting to restore two-party government.

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