The Rigged System of Government Union Negotiations


Rhode Island would definitely benefit from more insight into the governance process, such as Dan McGowan provides in his recent review of negotiations between Providence and its firefighter union:

“If @Jorge_Elorza does for the city what he’s done for the FD, we will be bankrupt, morally and fiscally, in no time,” Doughty wrote.

The message, retweeted 14 times that day, was one of hundreds Doughty has posted in the 20 months since Mayor Jorge Elorza announced his plan to overhaul the city’s fire department. Most of them had the same purpose: to show the members of Local 799 of the International Association of Firefighters he was prepared for a fight with City Hall.

But behind the scenes, Doughty and city officials kept the lines of communication open throughout much of the battle, quietly meeting for negotiations in coffee shops or the city’s law department even as the two sides attacked each other in public.

What Rhode Islanders who read the report may wonder is whether the sides are really represented by government officials and union reps who are essentially working toward a deal to be sprung on their constituencies when done, often at odds with the impression that the people at the negotiating table have been giving voicing outside of the room.

To some extent, this is an inevitable and even useful feature of the game (tainted, naturally, when public-sector unions get to manipulate the political system to affect the other side in the negotiations), but it also points to the fairyland nature of public finances, wherein the best deal the sides can reach may not be adequate for the long term.  The city and the union negotiate (or conspire) to pull their constituencies closer together, but it remains in the interests of those actually negotiating the deal to paper over the long-term consequences.

Put differently, the taxpayers/voters and union members may, indeed, have a better sense of their long-term interests than the people manipulating them toward an agreement.  “Successful” negotiations, then, really just prevent the sides from working out their fundamental conflict.

The unsigned editorial in last week’s Sakonnet Times (not online) points to the problem, noting that Tiverton is grappling with its ability to keep trash service going, having signed union contracts:

If a private business is teetering on the brink of fiscal crisis with no way to pay the bills, employees know better than to expect raises, no matter how loyal and productive they’ve been or the possibility that they may jump ship to someplace that pays better.  A more likely scenario is layoffs or pay cuts.  It’s neither nice nor fair, just reality.

But in the public sector, the bottom line often seems to matter less than keeping the employees happy and quiet.  Not enough money? Cut services, raise taxes — do anything but trim payroll.

That’s because the labor unions are a big, powerful constituency for politicians, as well as for their own reps, particularly among the Democrats who dominate Rhode Island.  They lock taxpayers into debt and contracts and then look for dissenting voices or vague classes of people (like “the rich”) whom they can attack as scapegoats.

So, while secret negotiations may be a way to pull the sides toward each other, the system is rigged to make sure the unreasonable expectations of union members always weigh more than the financial realities with which taxpayers must grapple.