Thursday, June 14, 2012

Public Employee Unions: the Democrats’ Achilles’ Heel?

Masthead of the International Association of Firefighters, of which the Portsmouth Fire Dept. is Local 512

Governor Scott Walker’s win in the Wisconsin recall election on  June 5th reflects the serious problem  public sector unions pose for Democrats and for private sector unions as well. Walker announced a year ago that he would attempt to reduce Wisconsin’s $137 million deficit by, along with other measures, denying collective bargaining rights to  public employees and requiring them to pay more for their health insurance and pensions, because the cost of those contributed heavily to the deficit. I’m not an  authority on the budget crisis in Wisconsin,  but I do know something about the budget crisis in Portsmouth. I venture to say that  the financial crisis in our fair city is partly  the result of who the public sector unions negotiate contracts with: namely, the politicians, the elected public officials who know they  will not be reelected if they alienate  public employees by hard-nosed bargaining with their unions. The biggest incentive Portsmouth politicians have is saving  their own skin rather than the taxpayers’ money. They want above all to get reelected and put off competing in the private sector where most of them have  failed miserably.  Three of the current holders of public office—the unelected mayor David Malone, the president of city council, John Haas, whom the charter designates as next in line to be mayor, and councilman Jim Kalb, a former mayor—all three of these jokers mishandled their personal finances so badly that they ended up declaring  bankruptcy (click here). These bankrupts mishandled their finances as badly as Rick Duncan does the citys waste water. They claim to know how to negotiate with public employee unions on behalf of the taxpayers. Heaven help us!

Firefighter Anonymous

The public sector union representing the Portsmouth Fire Department has been especially adept at taking advantage of Portsmouth’s incompetent and dimwitted politicians. Late in 2011, the firefighter’s union, Local 512 of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), was rumored to be asking for a 12.5 percent increase over the life of the next contract, and asking for that increase in spite the city and the country being in  greatest financial crisis  since the Great Depression. There are those who say the Portsmouth Daily Times has changed its spots, that it is no longer the mouthpiece of the corrupt clique that controls Portsmouth economically and politically. But on 11 November 2011 the PDT played its familiar game of pretending to be impartial when in reality it was doing its usual dirty work. I refer to Frank Lewis allowing a member of the Fire Department to anonymously express his biased views on the contract negotiations between Local 512 and the city. Just as the PDT now allows anyone, like the ubiquitous crackpot “A Citizen,”  to post comments anonymously in response to stories in the PDT, this Anonymous Firefighter was allowed to present to PDT’s dwindling readership, without challenges or questions, Local 512’s case for the extravagant 12.5 percent pay increase they were seeking.   What the Anonymous Firefighter argued was that a 12.5 percent increase was chicken feed and could hardly make up for the financial sacrifices the firefighters had made and were still willing to continue making in the contract being negotiated.  “Our [pay]checks were actually going backwards with the 12.5 percent increase,” the Anonymous Firefighter told Lewis. The Anonymous Firefighter implied Local 512 would have had to ask for a lot more than 12.5 percent to make up for the financial sacrifices the firefighters had already made, such as foregoing the cash payments they received for unused sick days and accepting less of an annual allowance for clothing, which if I recall correctly they previously were able also take a cash payment for if they didn’t purchase new clothing. 

Mayor un-elect Malone

The firefighters didn’t get the 12.5 percent increase. They got instead the so-called Safety Levy (i.e., tax increase), the income from which was specifically designated to shore up the finances of the Portsmouth Fire and Police Departments. The Anonymous Firefighter complained about Mayor Malone’s unpredictable role in the contract negotiations. Malone “flat-out said yes in one meeting. And the very next meeting said no,” the Anonymous Firefighter told Lewis. It is true that  Malone,in the tradition of Portsmouth mayoral dunces such as Bauer and Kalb, often does not know what hes doing,  but in the end you can count on him to figure out which side his bread is buttered on. Malone knew he could not afford to lose the support of the public employees,  the police and fire departments especially, which is why he made a personal contribution of $1000 dollars to the committee that was campaigning for the passage of the so-called Safety Levy on behalf of police and fire department employees. Why would a mayor spend a thousand dollars of his own money to support a tax increase for his constituents? Because he knows he has more to fear from public employees than from the public, and from the police and particularly the  fire department, which blatantly exploited the “safety issue” among senior voters in the Safety Levy campaign, especially at places like the Hill View Retirement Center, where firefighter Timothy Alger, now Lieutenant Alger, was reportedly among those firefighters seeing that scare-tactic anonymous flyers (click here)were put, possibly illegally,  into the mail slots of Hill View residents. In a letter to the PDT (5 Dec. 2011), Alger expressed his strong opposition to  city councilman who asked  if there should be a change in the city charter, which currently states the  number of firefighters can not fall below 44, a restrictive condition for any city charter to have, but especially a city in fiscal crisis whose population has been steadily sinking for half a century and is now less than half of what it once was.

Future Portsmouth mayor and chief contract negotiator Rev. Malone, with shades and bible, 
preaching  on steps of Municipal Building 2007 (click here)

The financial “hardships” that the Anonymous Firefighter claims Portsmouth firefighters have had to endure are of the kind that can infuriate unemployed workers in the private sector, who lost in the Great Recession of the past six years not part of their clothing allowance but their livelihood itself, and if anything like these “hardships” of Portsmouth firefighters took place with public employees in Wisconsin, it is not hard to understand why some Democratic union members voted against recalling Governor Walker last week, and it will not be hard to understand if some Democratic private sector union members do the same thing and vote Republican rather than Democratic in next November’s presidential election.  On 8 June, 2012, the International Association of Fire Fighters, the parent union of Portsmouth  firefighters, endorsed the reelection of Obama. The endorsement by a public employee union is a two-edge sword which probably will cut opposite ways in the November elections. Public employee unions may be able to negotiate contracts very effectively with mayors and city councils,  but the disparities in job security and  pensions and benefits between public and private employees is so glaring (though not in the case of public school teachers: click here) that public employee unions may be the Achilles Heel that will cost the Democrats the White House in November.