City union pay, up 13; non-union, 0. How come?

The News TribuneJanuary 27, 2014 

Tacoma City Manager T.C. Broadnax

To understand the difference between public union pay and everyone-else pay, look no further than the compensation proposal now before the Tacoma City Council.

The plan – which would give non-union city employees their first raise since 2009 – is entirely justified.

Times have been tough since the Great Recession, but this isn’t Venezuela. In the private sector, many have seen their pay fall short of inflation, but relatively few have had to endure five years without an additional dime. Even unemployment checks are adjusted for the cost of living.

Bill Gaines, director of Tacoma Public Utilities, says that no other utility in the country has gone five years without raises. TPU’s 429 non-union employees would be in on the deal that Gaines and City Manager T.C. Broadnax have proposed to the council.

And the deal is hardly munificent: a 3 percent raise, at most, for most of the workers.

But these are the non-union workers. Over the same five years, according to Broadnax, the city’s unionized workers have won raises that average 13 percent — roughly double the rate of inflation during the worst economic distress since the Great Depression.

Unions, 13; non-unions, 0. We hope the Seahawks do so well against the Broncos next Sunday.

If one dares suggest that nearly 200 percent of inflation may be a wee bit excessive during hard times, labor folks will immediately launch into their spiel about union-busting, the destruction of the middle class, the race to the bottom, the 1 percent and whatnot.

The fact is, those pay raises are coming out of the pockets of middle-class, blue-collar and poor Tacomans.

The problem isn’t unions per se. Their members are rational actors. They elect their leaders to get the best deal possible for the rank and file. When the leaders bring home a generous contract, they’re doing their job.

But unions in the private sector know their employers can go bust if the contracts get too fat. Market discipline would normally prevent, say, 13 percent increases when an employer is already sinking into the red (as the City of Tacoma has been).

The real problem lies in the incestuous relationship that public unions enjoy with the elected officials who oversee their contracts. Many of those officials are beholden to the public unions for their elections, or at least scared of retaliation when they’re up for re-election. They have every incentive to be generous, even at the expense of road repair and police protection.

A city council with spine will push back when the demands of public unions threaten critical public services. In Tacoma, where streets are cratered and libraries have been closed, five years of spinelessness has a number: 13 percent.

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