The Freak Show: The Wisconsin War

The war is finally here. It may be starting in Wisconsin, but it threatens to spread to other states in similar dire straits. The battle is over the powerful unions that control government workers. They have long been a “hands off” entity for politicians. If you want to get votes, you need the backing of government workers.

And the unions have taken full advantage of this. While initially they fought for reasonable working conditions and equal pay, they have exceeded even their wildest expectations. A recent Trenton Times study shows that in New Jersey state workers make 17 percent more than comparable jobs in the private sector, along with a whopping 50 percent higher benefits. Those benefits include high pensions, early retirement, and even 13 paid holidays; that’s right, they get at least one holiday a month.

So with states going bankrupt, they need to either cut spending, or raise taxes. Since raising taxes has gone about as far as it can, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin decided it’s time to get back to basics. He has proposed a bill that would eliminate collective bargaining for most state employees. They would be assigned pay and benefits like a private sector professional would, by the decision of management as to how much they can afford to pay.

As you might expect, the unions have not taken this lightly. Mass public protests are taking place in the capital building. Schools have canceled classes as the teachers union called on all 98,000 members to attend rallies. The Democrats in the legislature, who are traditionally union backers, have left the capital, so that they couldn’t be found to vote on the bill. The Governor has responded by readying the Wisconsin National Guard.

Other states have similar problems. Outrageous pensions are a major issue. In New York City, the deputy fire chief retired on a pension worth $242,000 a year. An official holding two jobs and one pension took in $641,000. A lieutenant with the Port Authority police retired with a pension of $196,767, and 738 of the city’s teachers and principals have pensions worth more than $100,000 a year.

James Hunderfund receives $316,245 annually since retiring as superintendent of a Long Island school district. He soon returned, and now as superintendent of the Malverne school district, makes $1,000 a day. One retiree, former superintendent Frank A. Tassone, receives his annual $173,495 pension in prison after being convicted of stealing $2.2 million from the school district.

California has the worst pension issues. As of 2008, there are 4,820 retirees receiving pensions in excess of $100,000. Since 2008, more than 120 new retirees have joined the “$100,000 Club” each month. Oh, I forgot to mention they get cost of living increases as well. Sometimes it’s hard to make it on $100,000 a year.

In New Jersey, the old deal seemed fair: public employees would earn lower salaries than the private sector, but would receive a better retirement and more days off. Now public employees get higher average pay and far higher benefits. But even in these tough times, their unions have continued to fight for increases.

The most recent state employee contract, negotiated (I use the term loosely, it was more like a gift), occurred in 2008, during the worst recession since the Great Depression. Yet the union got a 13.5 percent wage increase over four years. The union will point out that they give in and accepted having to pay 1.5 percent of their salary toward their health care. On a $50,000 salary that comes to $750 a year. I pay almost that much a month; and they expect to have my sympathy for having to pay $750 a year?

On top of that, the teachers union in New Jersey is filing a suit against Governor Christie for trying to impose that same thing on their members, stating the new contributions will cause “significant financial hardship” on teachers and school employees “who have provided long-standing, honorable and essential service to the public school students in the state of New Jersey.”

In facing the budget problems, Governor Christie asked state workers to sacrifice, like private sector workers have done. The spokesmen for the union, Hetty Rosenstein, responded by saying they would not agree to any change in their negotiated deal and the Governor needed to find “revenue enhancements” to meet the costs. Is this woman from Mars? She actually called for raising taxes rather than even give lip service to working with her employer to try and make things work. Their employer, of course, is you and I, since we pay their salaries.

I happened to pass a protest in Trenton during the contract negotiations. Many of them were holding signs saying “Get Your Hands Out Of My Pockets.” I find that offensive. It’s not their money; it’s my money that I pay in taxes to compensate them. This union seriously needs to get a reality check.

Before you think I’m biased, I am actually a union member myself, and I am no fan of the Republicans. But in this case, the Republican Governors of Wisconsin and New Jersey are trying to do what is necessary to get things under control.

I am tired of paying for things like Mercer County Sherriff Kevin Larkin’s dual income, while he collects an $85,000 pension on top of his $129,000 salary. Or Union County Sheriff Ralph Froelick, who earned $140,000 last year, along with an $85,000 pension. I personally know a vice-principal at a North Jersey school who makes over $130,000 a year. Here’s an idea… cut her salary to $80,000, and keep on a teacher with the remaining $50,000.

Former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, who this year completed a 27-month prison sentence for federal corruption charges, gets a $124,000 annual pension, as well as a nearly $1 million 401(k) account from his prior career as a teacher at Essex County College. Before he was convicted, he was also earning a $150,000 salary as head of an urban studies institute at the college, and a $50,000 annual salary as a state senator.

Michael Ritacco, the former Toms River schools superintendent, sold back 250 sick days between 2002 and 2007 for a total of $219,517. He needed the money; his salary was only $234,000. And he was permitted to cash in 50 sick days each year between 2002 and 2007 as part of his contract.

He has been replaced by an assistant superintendent, who graciously announced he will not ask for more money to work as superintendent. He’ll suffer with his $179,000 assistant’s salary.

The New Jersey budget was $21.8 billion in 2001. It’s now almost $10 billion higher. That’s a billion dollar increase a year for the last 10 years. We need to get this under control, and fast. Let the battle be joined!