The Aesthetics of Benefits with Government Unions

In a recent conversation about the condition of Rhode Island’s state and local pensions, I stated that the system is “doomed,” and one of the other participants responded with a perspective that tends to get lost in the public-policy context.  “Gee,” he said, “don’t tell that to people you’re trying to recruit for government jobs.”

My immediate response was to suggest that they shouldn’t worry, because the way things go in our state, it’ll probably be taxpayers who bear the brunt of the consequences.  If anything, therefore, the advice should be, “Don’t tell that to people you’re hoping will move here.”  I might also have added that government employment in Rhode Island provides such a large premium (as the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity has recently described) that even a greatly reduced retirement benefit would not take the shine off the job.

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But I did have to wonder why I hadn’t thought of the question in quite that way before.  Critics will say that I simply hate government employees, which isn’t true, although I’d have no trouble picking a side in the us-versus-them on government unions.

Perhaps Rhode Island’s pension woes are less academic to me these days, now that I’ve got responsibility for town employees’ workplace.  A town has jobs that must be filled, and just as with any private-sector employer, we should want employees to be satisfied in their work.  Indeed, a significant part of my dislike for unionization is that it interferes in this relationship, binding everybody with rules and deliberate opposition between “management” and “labor.”

The fact of the matter is that contract provisions are not in any immediate sense part of a package of benefits that managers have designed in order to attract and retain employees.  The basics of most of the benefits were negotiated years ago with past employees, all under the heavy hand of the state government and with the color of officials’ own political interests.  Case in point:  For most state and local government employees in Rhode Island, their pension benefit is a creation of state law, as designed by legislators and statewide elected officers who rely on union donations and support for their reelection.

The whole tone of negotiations is labor saying it wants more and management saying it can’t afford to give that much more.  The unions’ public presentation tends to be an assertion of rights and an accusation of disrespect when management tries to do something different.  In that atmosphere, benefits look much more like something that the unions have wrested from management than like an expression of management’s appreciation for its employees.  That doesn’t seem like the healthiest way to run an organization.

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