Is The Tide Turning?

The greed and avarice of the labor union bosses has gotten so bad that their allies in government are starting to say “no” the the never ending list of demands that are bankrupting the country.  The New York Times (of all places) reports:

Stephen M. Sweeney, the president of the State Senate here, glowered with disgust as he described how one New Jersey town paid out nearly $1 million to four retiring police officers for their unused sick days and vacation time.

Mr. Sweeney, a Democrat, also scowled about the estimated $46 billion New Jersey owes in pension contributions and its $58 billion in liabilities to finance retiree health coverage for government employees.

For years, Republican lawmakers have railed against public employees’ pay and benefits, but now another breed of elected official is demanding labor concessions, too: current and former labor leaders and allies themselves.

After 12 years erecting steel beams for office buildings, Mr. Sweeney became a top official in New Jersey’s ironworkers union, now holding that post along with his legislative one. He says the state can no longer afford the benefits won over the years by public sector unions.

“At some point, you reach the limit of your ability to pay,” he said.

In Oregon, Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski, a former lawyer representing the state employees’ union, is insisting upon wage concessions from those very workers. In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former teachers’ union organizer, is battling once-friendly unions, demanding $100 million in concessions.

In New York, Gov. David A. Paterson, a longtime union ally whose father is a top adviser to several unions, is threatening large-scale layoffs unless public sector unions agree to a pay freeze and re-open contracts.

The transition from labor ally to labor critic can be bruising. Viewing Mr. Sweeney as a traitor, several public sector unions in New Jersey are threatening to get another Democrat to challenge him and have hired airplanes to fly over the Jersey Shore with banners denouncing him. They have even dragged out giant inflatable rats to embarrass him at speaking engagements.

“I’m getting branded as an antilabor person by the public employee unions, which amazes me because I’ve spent my lifetime doing right by working men and women,” said Mr. Sweeney, who has sponsored legislation that raised the state minimum wage and required companies to provide paid sick days. “I’m a labor leader, but I’m also elected to do right by all the people in the state of New Jersey, and not just union members.”

Another New Jersey Democrat, Donald Norcross, who is both a state senator and president of the Southern New Jersey Central Labor Council, has been told by several public sector unions that they will not contribute a cent toward his Senate re-election campaign because he has backed so many of Mr. Sweeney’s proposals. And in Los Angeles, Mr. Villaraigosa has faced hostile union-paid advertisements and librarians demonstrating outside his home on Father’s Day.

For decades, many state and city politicians, especially Democratic ones, helped assure their re-election by cozying up to public-sector unions and benefiting from their campaign dollars and precinct walkers. Prior to their current jobs, Mr. Paterson did just that as Democratic leader of the New York State Senate and Mr. Villaraigosa did the same as a member of the California State Assembly.

Like many labor-friendly politicians, they happily voted for pension sweeteners and other benefits for unions. But now, with cities and states struggling to close budget gaps, there is a glaring need to scale back costs of all kinds, and public employees are a favorite target.

Last year, 51 percent of cities froze or reduced pay, according to the National League of Cities, while 25 percent laid off workers, 24 percent reduced health benefits and 22 percent revised union contracts to reduce pay and benefits. According to the Pew Center on the States, states are $452 billion behind in their pension contributions while also having $554 billion in liabilities for retiree health care.

Even with the resistance from public sector unions, some elected officials are realizing that getting tough with the unions can be good politics in down economic times, as government employees’ benefits are held up as examples of excess — and as taxpayers (and voters) demand greater accountability.

Gary N. Chaison, a professor and labor expert at Clark University, said some Democratic officials now see it as a “badge of honor” to take on the unions.“They see it as a way to show their independence,” he said.

At a time when many private sector workers have been badly squeezed by stagnant wages, soaring health care premiums and shrinking 401(k)’s, resentment has grown even among private sector union members toward the public employee unions. “It’s almost as if the private sector is blaming the public sector as the spoiled child in the house of labor,” Professor Chaison said.

Hetty Rosenstein, state director of theCommunications Workers of America, New Jersey’s main government workers’ union, sees these moves as scapegoating.

“You can drum up a lot of resentment when people are hurting economically,” Ms. Rosenstein said. “It’s very, very hard to see people so angry at teachers and social workers.”

In New York, Danny Donohue, president of the Civil Service Employees Association of New York, said union members feel betrayed by Mr. Paterson.

“If you told me five years ago that David Paterson would be our enemy, I would have laughed at you,” Mr. Donohue said. “He’s trying to balance a $9 billion deficit on the backs of public employees.” The Paterson administration says it is asking many parties to sacrifice.

In New Jersey, Mr. Sweeney faulted many public employee union leaders for not telling their members the hard facts.

“All you get is finger-pointing,” he said. “They don’t tell their people that they got them these things without a way to pay for them long-term.”

As New Jersey’s top Democrat and second-most powerful official, Mr. Sweeney has made proposal after proposal to rein in labor costs, like setting a $15,000 cap for cashing out unused vacation and sick days and requiring all state employees to pay 1.5 percent of their wages toward their health coverage.

But some union officials have criticized Mr. Sweeney for collecting more than $150,000 a year from the three jobs he holds simultaneously — Senate president, county freeholder and union official. He responds that he works 16-hour days and donates his county salary to charity.

In demanding cutbacks, Mr. Sweeney does not go as far as New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie. Mr. Sweeney has called for eliminating — for all future state hires — a 9 percent pension increase that a Republican governor pushed through in 2001. Mr. Christie would also eliminate that increase for current employees and retirees now receiving pensions and set a 2.5 percent annual cap on any increase in teachers’ contracts.

Ms. Rosenstein, of the communications workers, said many state workers in New Jersey have already taken an 18-month wage freeze and 10 unpaid furlough days. Moreover, she said, public pensions are in trouble not because they are too generous, but because many years the state failed to make the $2 billion annual contribution needed to keep the pension fund solvent (while most employees’ contributions have increased to 5.5 percent of pay, from 3 percent).

“People talk of shared sacrifice,” Ms. Rosenstein said. “We’ve already sacrificed.”