There’s no telling what kind of sacrifices Tacoma’s firefighters union may be offering as it privately negotiates with city administrators to preserve positions and public safety. The big thing is that they’re negotiating in the first place.
The Great Recession has not been kind to public unions. In the rising economic tide that preceded it, many of them had won very generous compensation from local and state officials they’d helped put in office.
Unions in the private sector should have it so good. Private-sector unions can’t vote for the people they face at the bargaining table, and the companies they work for can go bust if they can’t turn a profit. (See Hostess Brands Inc.)
Governments don’t face the discipline of the market, and they rarely go belly up: People can do without Twinkies, but they can’t do without police protection, sewers, water or streets.
The recession and its aftermath have slammed public unions from two directions: Governments have been hard-pressed to pay for those nice contracts without cannibalizing the services they provide their citizens. And taxpayers – many of whom have seen their incomes drop – have been annoyed to discover how much they are paying public employees in very hard times.
With revenue growth strangled, budget-writing has become a zero-sum game: Union compensation comes at the expense of city services, and vice versa. When the tradeoffs are made, no one walks away smiling.
In fact, the City of Tacoma would have been happy to settle for zero sum tradeoffs. After inheriting a fiscal disaster from his predecessor – and previous city councils – City Manager T.C. Broadnax had to close a $63 million shortfall when he developed Tacoma’s newly adopted biennial spending plan.
Almost everything has been hit, including emergency services, road repair and Tacoma’s once-expansive library system. Taxes have been raised. The budget will eliminate 217 jobs, some by attrition.
The Tacoma Fire Department stands to lose 29 positions, three fire engines, Station 6 in the Tideflats and staffing at fire stations on the East Side and in the Proctor District.
Faced with similar scenarios, public unions have responded in different ways. Some have ignored critics, hunkered down, and clung to every pay raise and privilege won in contracts past – sacrificing jobs in many cases to maintain pay scales and benefits.
Other unions across the country have responded rationally, negotiating givebacks to save both jobs and the services they provide. To its credit, Tacoma’s Fire Union Local 31 appears to be doing just that as it talks with city officials about preserving positions and fire protection.
Given the economic distress in Tacoma and Pierce County, this isn’t a matter of how much compensation firefighters or other public employees deserve. That’s a judgment call: They may deserve more, or less, depending on whom you talk to.
It’s really a matter of how money exists. Local 31 looks as if it has come to grips with that unbendable reality. Other city unions might spare some of their own members’ jobs if they did likewise.