The Freak Show: State Unions And Government Pensions

New Jersey is one of a number of states drowning in red ink. One of the causes is the generous health care and pensions government workers get, whether it be state workers, teachers, administrators or even the politicians themselves.

The newly elected politicians that are trying to deal with this are caught in a cross fire of accusations, and constant complaints that they are trying to “balance the budget on the backs of state workers.” A study of government workers versus the private sector which ran in the Times Of Trenton last year showed that on average they get 17 percent higher wages, and 50 percent greater benefits than comparable jobs in the private sector.

Traditionally, the always state-paid lower wages but made up for it in greater benefits and generous vacation time. Somehow, the trend has reversed, and they’ve retained the excess benefit packages but seen the wages rise as well. This has happened because of the strength of the public sector unions, who have negotiated better and better contracts in recent decades.

How did these unions get so strong? The answer lies in the fact that they are not really unions, in the traditional sense. A union that negotiates with a company in the private sector has an adversarial relationship with the company. The company has its goal to pay as little as possible, while retaining worker loyalty and labor continuity. The union has its goal to get higher wages and benefits, as well as safe working conditions for its members.

This is not the case at all for government workers. The quandary is the fact that the members of the unions vote for the very people they are negotiating with; the Governor and the members of the New Jersey legislature, who vote on their contracts. It’s totally a conflict of interest. With such a large union, they simply have to say they won’t support the politicians they are dealing with if they don’t get what they are looking for. Think about it: what company can you work for where you get to vote in or out the people that control your wages and benefits?

Obviously, politicians are forced to be beholden to the union members, so they’ve continually given generous wages and benefit packages. The last New Jersey worker contract included raises well above the rate of inflation, but enabled our former Governor to brag that he got a “give-back” because workers would now have to contribute 1.5 percent of their pay to health benefits. For a worker making $50,000, that’s $750 a year, the same as what most private sector people have to pay each month. Not much of a concession on the part of the union, but in the recent climate of negotiations any concession is cause for celebration by overburdened taxpayers. It’s no wonder voters finally got fed up and elected our so-called “anti-union” governor.

The only way to really fix this is would be to disallow public union members from voting in New Jersey. That way they would have to negotiate under the same conditions as private sector unions, and would probably arrive at a fair and equitable arrangement with those on the other side of the table. Not very realistic, and probably not constitutional.

Another possible solution was proposed recently under the guise of the “pay-to-play” legislation. In our state, it has been common for a private company, such as a construction company, to make significant campaign donations. Lo and behold, the next contracts that were awarded by the state to build buildings, bridges, and roads, would go to that company. In recent years we’ve finally gotten laws in place to prevent that. If you make a contribution over a certain amount, you can’t be the recipient of a state contract for a certain amount of time.

Upon being elected, Governor Christie issued an executive order extending those rules to the public sector unions. Since they do business with the state, and have contracts with the state, it seems logical they should have to abide by the same rules. But the unions immediately went to court to try and nullify that. They were successful, and the order was ruled unconstitutional. Not that the intent of the order wouldn’t be allowed by a court, but it would have to be voted on by the legislature, rather than implemented by executive order. As you can see, it will be hard to get politicians to vote for that, seeing that they would be giving up a great deal of potential contributions, as well as incurring the wrath of a large voting block.

But the unions have overplayed their hand, and it’s starting to come back to bite them. Yes, they might win in court, as they did in the executive order case. But public opinion is turning against them as people see their wages and jobs diminish, while those working for the government are getting raises. And it does annoy me to no end that my property taxes went up over 50 percent last year, due in part to pay for the generous health benefits the public workers get, at the same time I’m having to scrape together ever more money to pay the huge increase in my own health insurance monthly payment.

I’ve always been a supporter of unions and their causes. I’m even a union member myself. But by squeezing out every last drop of blood they could get from the taxpayers, they’ve managed to alienate me and many other would-be supporters. The head of the CWA, Hetty Rosenstein, which represents 60,000 public workers in New Jersey, even went so far as to loudly proclaim, upon hearing about the large budget deficit, that they would not open any negotiated contract; that the state had better find some “revenue enhancers,” as she called it. In plain language, that would be tax increases.

The public employee unions need to sit down and start being reasonable, taking into account the ability of the state to pay for their largesse. Otherwise more and more “anti-union” politicians are going to be elected. With it will come union pay-to-play laws, and they will have killed the goose that laid the golden egg.