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Asking the right questions on unions and collective bargaining

It has been a cool spring, but John Crawford and Russ Jehl have found a surefire way to heat things up. The two Republican City Council members propose doing away with collective bargaining for some or all of the 1,200 city workers.

News of their plan brought hundreds of workers to last Tuesday’s City Council meeting, and similarly passionate legions of workers will turn up when the debate officially begins Tuesday evening.

Union members expressed both hurt and anger. Two council members even voted against letting the bills be introduced for discussion.

Actually, Crawford and Jehl are to be commended for bringing the issue up in a civil and straightforward manner.

It was, after all, only a matter of time before the city’s collective bargaining system would come under attack. As Crawford points out, contracts with all nine of the city’s unions are up for renegotiation. “If there ever were a time to consider this, it’s now,” he says. Crawford would like to eliminate all collective bargaining; Jehl would retain it only for the firefighters and police unions.

The notion that unions are a hindrance to economic progress is not a new one in conservative circles. In recent years the idea gained momentum as Republican governors and statehouses around the country began to flex their muscles.

In 2005, Gov. Mitch Daniels ended collective bargaining for state workers with a stroke of his pen. In 2011, Daniels and the legislature stripped public school teachers of the right to bargain for anything but salaries and benefits. In 2012, after a bitter battle during which Democratic House members fled the state in a vain attempt to avoid a vote, Indiana became a right-to-work state, which means that unions can no longer compel individuals in a represented workforce to join.

Crawford and Jehl argue that unions are relics from the past that inflict the city with inflexible work rules and provide workers with artificially high salaries and frivolous reasons for time off with pay. They say the cost of dealing with nine unions, each with its own contracts, is prohibitive.

Crawford wants defenders of collective bargaining to answer the question, “Why should we want to keep it?”

We think that is the wrong question.

A better question might be, “Is it smarter to fix the system or to do away with it entirely?”

Fort Wayne today is a town on the edge of greatness, rapidly becoming known as an attractive, welcoming community that values quality of life and nurtures business.

Anyone who believes this could have happened, or that it could continue, without a highly motivated, professional, dedicated public workforce should indeed move to Detroit, or one of those failing California cities Crawford and Jehl have been talking about. If you haven’t noticed the unusually high quality of service in your own encounters with public employees here, you haven’t been looking – or you haven’t lived anywhere else.

Maybe you can find a lazy sourpuss somewhere deep in a Fort Wayne department. But as a rule, from the firefighters and police who protect our homes and streets to the snowplow drivers who were on the front line in the battle against our worst winter, city workers are positive, competent, customer-friendly and dedicated to making this a better place to live.

Certainly quality workforces can be nurtured in a non-union environment. But to make a frontal assault on an existing union structure, with the express aim of reducing salaries and the implied aim of stifling voices, is to make a frontal assault on employee morale. The savings and “efficiencies” Crawford and Jehl imagine might come with high price tags: Reduced efficiency, loss of good employees and inability to attract the best and brightest for the future.

Compensation for city employees can only be compared fairly with similar jobs in similar cities. By that measure, the case is stronger for raises than for pay cuts for at least some of our public servants. There are 31 communities in Indiana that pay their police and firefighters more than Fort Wayne pays ours. Not just Carmel ($67,594) or Indianapolis ($65,897), but also Seymour ($55,310) and Warsaw ($53,224). The collective-bargaining boogeyman doesn’t appear to have come through for Fort Wayne police and firefighters ($51,524).

Indeed, with state revenue streams in increasing jeopardy, Fort Wayne and other Indiana cities probably are facing some difficult financial choices in the years ahead. Union and non-union workers here will have to expect and accept downsized benefits and fewer pay increases. Anyone who didn’t get that point before will now, as Crawford’s and Jehl’s more extreme solutions to that problem are argued over.

And the two councilmen have indeed identified some problems with work rules and some odd ways of apportioning vacation days. Should workers not get their birthdays off? Should non-union workers be allowed to pull a stray weed at the botanical gardens? These are problems fixable through new contract negotiations.

Could the number of unions, and thus the cost and workload of city-union negotiations, be substantially reduced? Possibly, although this could become a classic illustration of the “be careful what you wish for” principle. Jehl expresses concern that the current unions represent “silos of power.” Imagine, then, one or two unions’ giant silos of inordinate power.

The number-of-unions question, though, deserves attention from the council and input from the community, including union members themselves.

But it’s far from clear that we could have moved faster, changed and grown more effectively if the city hadn’t been encumbered with unions. Consider this. Between 1999 and 2008, the city added 31 percent more residents, 37.5 percent more land and 39 percent more miles of roadway. Yet the city’s non-public safety workforce has been shrinking for years. Those rigid union work rules clearly haven’t prevented city workers from becoming much more efficient.

If city workers are paid competitive salaries, if they’ve become more productive over the past 15 years, and if they are perceived by those who deal with them as highly competent, what problem, exactly, would an all-out attack on collective bargaining be addressing?

Let the discussion begin. But the situation calls for a scalpel, not a weapon of mass destruction. Public unions may have contributed to abuses and excesses in some cities, but they also, by replacing patronage with skills-based hiring, helped make careers in the public sector respectable occupations. Here, warts and all, public unions and collective bargaining have been part and parcel of the community’s emerging success story.

Crawford and Jehl will have done the community a service by jump-starting an important discussion. But ultimately, constructive solutions to the problems they’ve raised will not include the measures they’ve introduced.