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Public employees under scrutiny after recent elections

America’s appetite for austerity in paychecks and benefits for government employees is spreading.

Voters signaled their agreement in elections this week, one in Wisconsin and two more in city elections in California. In Wisconsin, the solid decision by voters to keep Republican Gov. Scott Walker in office after a tough recall drive appeared to politically validate his move to strip collective bargaining rights from public employees. In California, voters’ approval of pension cuts for current and future city workers in San Diego and San Jose suggested a bigger threat for public-sector unions nationally, one that could spawn similar moves in other cash-strapped cities and states.

“The fact that these ballot initiatives took place, and they passed by significant margins, will probably embolden reformers in different places around the country to take on these issues,” said Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

The election results were a clear setback for public employees and their unions, but perhaps to varying degrees.

“In Wisconsin, you have a governor that reversed 50 years of union rights, so this was very obviously a politically motivated attack that extended far beyond economic necessity,” said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education.

“San Diego and San Jose are much more about desperate cities trying to make ends meet,” Wong said. “You have a very severe state budget crisis so, given municipalities’ interest in curtailing expenses, it doesn’t surprise me that those initiatives might pass in those two cities.”

While Ohio voters in November repealed a Wisconsin-like measure that ended collective bargaining rights for state workers, conservative Republican lawmakers – and growing numbers of Democrats in cash-starved states like California and Illinois – continue to target public-sector workers for concessions.

Last year, 18 states increased employee pension contributions for state workers, up from 11 in 2010. Sixteen states increased age and service requirements for state employee retirements.

States including Colorado, Minnesota, New Jersey and South Dakota have moved to postpone or cut cost-of-living adjustments on state employee pension benefits.

Across the country, nearly 600 bills have been introduced in state capitals seeking to limit the collective bargaining activity of public-sector workers and their unions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. States that passed such laws included Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

In total, 30 states and Puerto Rico passed 69 collective bargaining bills in 2011.

“There were far more bills on collective bargaining introduced than in previous years," said Jeanne Mejeur, principal researcher for legislative management at the NCSL.

This year’s state legislative session isn’t producing the same volume of legislation or the vitriol that marked public clashes when Walker first pushed his plan in Wisconsin. Experts said election years typically bring slowdowns in controversial legislation. Most states also are in the second year of their two-year legislative cycles, meaning a glut of holdover bills is clogging the dockets.

Also, the money and effort needed for a ballot initiative makes it unlikely that the San Jose and San Diego proposals will be duplicated elsewhere in time for the November elections, Biggs added.

That said, public employees are still in the crosshairs, as cost-cutting states continue to trim their jobs, pension benefits and retiree health benefits.

“We’re not seeing the kind of broad-based ‘completely eliminate collective bargaining rights’ kind of bills. But other than that, there are still very similar pieces of legislation being introduced this year in the same pattern as last year,” Mejeur said.

These include proposals that restrict the way union dues are collected, the rights of state workers to organize and the political activity that public unions can engage in.

It’s mainly the benefits that draws budget cutters. Public employees earn about 7 percent less on average than comparably trained, educated and experienced workers in the private sector, studies show.

“It’s in benefits where the pay differences between public- and private-sector employees are the largest,” Biggs said. “The salaries are not hugely different. The benefits are.”

And as public-sector employees retain more of the benefits that private-sector workers are losing, their compensation packages have come under scrutiny.

“What we find is that pensions, vacations, sick pay, health benefits that many public sector workers have, used to be the norm for most major companies across the country,” Wong said. “But with such a steady erosion of those types of benefits, they now seem like the exception rather than the rule.”

Labor activists aren’t ready to concede the hard-fought benefits of public employees.

Earlier this year, Maryland legislators overturned a so-called “doomsday” budget loaded with spending cuts, in favor of a new budget that included new tax revenue to retain jobs and fund pay hikes for state workers. In Missouri, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees lobbied successfully for a 2 percent pay increase for all state workers making $70,000 or less.

“Remember that collective bargaining rights were taken from workers in Kentucky, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio and Puerto Rico – yet they all ultimately won them back,” said AFCSME President Gerald McEntee.

“This struggle is far from over,” he added, vowing to fight to reverse the Wisconsin verdict someday. “Make no mistake, the battle in Wisconsin will not end until workers in the Badger State win back their stolen right to a voice on the job.”

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