Fighting a Phantom Over Negotiations

Ken Block is completely right that there’s a fundamental imbalance in how public-sector contract negotiations happen.

Typically, an appointed team from the union negotiates the details with elected and appointed officials. Then every member of the union gets a vote.  At that point, the public gets a (usually brief) look, and elected officials approve it.  In Warwick, the mayor negotiates and the City Council reviews, but in smaller communities the council participates in the negotiations.

There are basically two views to how these things should go.  One side thinks the public should have a direct role in determining what is reasonable for employees, compared with the deals of the people paying the taxes, and in taking ownership of a contract.  The other side thinks we elect representatives because the general public can’t possibly balance the needs of the community with their own interests and with the demands of employees.

The latter view has a long and powerful history of activism from the unions.  This is the view they want everybody to believe, especially their members: With more public involvement, and especially without unions, a handful of loud and selfish people like Ken Block (and me) will rile people up and demand that employees work for slave wages. Therefore, unions and government officials must use whatever maneuvers it takes to slip contracts through (which they see as “fair,” from their point of view) and then collect the taxes to pay for them.

This isn’t a reasonable narrative, because at some point, a city or town won’t be able to find employees, and it will be obvious that pay is the reason.  Rather, the constant pressure from unions ensures that the remuneration is as high as it is possible to get it.  Unfortunately, it also ensures that there is always tension in communities, especially between employees and residents, which is extremely unfortunate and undermines confidence in our system of government.

Although it wouldn’t cure the underlying tension, more transparency and a more deliberative process in negotiations would definitely help.  I’m skeptical, however, about Ken’s call for legislation.

In an honest assessment, calling for state-level legislation is too easy, at this point.  It will never, ever happen unless we see much bigger political — and cultural — shifts in the Ocean State.

The better bet is to impose such requirements at the local level, by ordinance or Home Rule Charter.  As Ken notes, the five city council members who supported this contract in Warwick received donations from the union (which is ultimately more a marker of which side they’re on than anything).  So, organize at the local level and change them.

Everybody who engages in Rhode Island politics seems to fall into this same bad habit, imitating the unions and progressives, of trying to go above the heads of local officials.  We need to start working in the other direction.

Of course, as we saw with firefighter overtime and evergreen contracts during the last legislative session, the unions will then go to state-wide legislators to re-impose what was previously the status quo.  That’s fine.  One can’t fight a phantom without getting it to materialize first.

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