A deeper look at State Issue 2 - Reworking Public Employee Labor Laws

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Voters have begun casting absentee ballots on State Issue Two, which proposes to rework collective bargaining rules for public employees.

Why is there such vehement opposition by some who are aligned with public employee unions to this legislation?

There are three main reasons for the emotional opposition: the sense that they are not appreciated, the desire to keep the rules they have, and an effort to gain politically.

 Let's examine each of these reasons.

Under-appreciation is a basic, unspoken emotion running through some public employees as this bill has moved throughout 2011. It needs to be brought forward and discussed.

Think about it. Governmental services are all about people helping our communities, from education to safety protection. Leaders with responsibility in government either value and build up their work force or find that service declines, along with their effectiveness as managers.

There is reason to work on improving how government managers and employees work together. The one provision in Senate Bill 5, now Issue Two, with my fingerprints on it, establishes an effort to develop stronger, healthier relationships between government managers and their employees. There is a culture of distrust in too much of public service employment. It is destructive of job satisfaction and damages work quality.

There is also a culture of distrust in government itself in Ohio.  While this has healthy applications, it can also be used to manipulate the emotions of our citizens for political gain. This is unhealthy and can easily translate into poor attitudes toward government workers. Granted there are instances that need to be corrected, but this means that elected officials and their management team must be able to lead without being hamstrung by rules and laws that make accountability too difficult.

I believe strongly in praising and encouraging the overwhelming majority of public employees in our area who give us great service. We all want to be appreciated for what we are doing.  And when appreciation is given, it often boosts determination to sustain and improve that service.

To the extent that citizens or their leaders have lapsed into unhealthy attitudes toward public service employees, let's agree to work at getting on a better track.

Obviously, all is not peachy in governmental service.  That discussion comes next.

Desire to keep the current rules is understandable. They are weighted in multiple ways against the elected officials who have responsibility to manage governmental services on behalf of our citizens. 

I was on hand in 1983 when the current rules for setting public employee compensation and working environment were passed in a totally one-sided partisan fashion, over my objections. That is only one indicator, but it is my view that those rules went too far in giving labor unions power to prevent elected and appointed managers from correcting poor employee performance and from controlling costs in ways that promote service quality. 

Senate Bill 5 also passed the legislature with much controversy and with elements of partisanship. But it did not repeal the collective bargaining law passed in 1983. 

What Senate Bill 5 will do is pull back a number of the over-reaches in the 1983 law, establishing a better balance between management and employees in the collective bargaining process.

It retains the collective bargaining process, but with new restrictions.

Here are major policy changes the bill makes:

·      establishes performance-based pay for most public employees, replacing step increases that give raises based on years of service

·      requires employees, including management, to pay their share, usually 10 percent of their pay, toward their retirement benefit

·      requires employees, including management, to pay at least 15 percent of premium cost for their health insurance benefit

·      prohibits future agreements from requiring non-union members to pay union dues, sometimes referred to as closed shop provisions

·      prohibits public employee strikes

·      tenure for teachers is replaced with a performance-based system, except teachers already tenured are grandfathered

·      limits grievance procedures to disputes on interpretation of the written agreement

·      provides transparency in the collective bargaining process when agreement is not reached by making public the last best offers of both sides and by making public the terms of agreements that are reached

·      requires the legislative body with governing responsibility to settle unresolved contract negotiations by voting to select the last best offer made by either the employee group or the employer. Where no action is taken, the employer's last offer becomes the contract for three years. 

·      provides a path to bring both final offers to voters in situations where a labor contract dispute goes to a legislative body and there is controversy over whether revenues are sufficient to fund it

Are these changes really needed? I believe that they are and will help balance a set of laws that have been out of whack for many years. It is true that there are many examples of employers and their employees working cooperatively to agree on practical labor contracts, even under current laws. But there are also many cases where the current legal structure has worked against reasonable service levels for reasonable compensation. This is where SB 5 will do the most good.

Political positioning explains a lot of the heat over this legislation. 

One political party wants to position itself as the champion of public sector unions, who want to keep the current set of laws.

These dynamics produced the predictable outcry and emotion.

I prefer a more even-handed approach that values and recognizes the rights and responsibilities of both government workers and their elected and appointed managers.

What I did not expect, and was shocked to witness, was bold-faced lying that was used in efforts to turn teachers, in particular, against this legislation.

I will give two examples that I observed personally. For months some teachers expressed distress that this legislation would drastically cut their salaries by mandating salary caps on. They didn't think this up on their own. The truth is that the language in current state law setting minimum teacher salaries, and setting automatic minimum increases based on simply teaching another year, is being repealed. Minimum salaries are already over-ridden anyway in current labor contracts. No minimums or maximums are set in the new law.  Salaries will continue to be set in collectively bargained contracts.

Second, I observed a group of mostly teachers being told that their retirement system was "gone." This outlandish claim has only one purpose, to whip the emotions through misleading and false claims. The truth is that this legislation only prohibits management or future bargaining contracts from having the employer pay part or all of the long-standing requirement that educators, and most other state and local employees, pay 10 percent of their salaries toward their future retirement benefit. In our area this will have minimal impact because most government employees are already at 10 percent, and of the few who will be affected, many are in management positions.

There is separate legislation, still under study, that seeks to restore long-term sustainability to each of the five public employee pension systems, facing the fact that none of the systems have been earning the eight percent annual average gains that continue to be assumed. This legislation also could turn into a political football at some point, but it should not.

As for the campaigns, it frustrates me that some of the advertising in support of Issue Two has been silent on how many employees would be affected by a 10 percent minimum retirement savings requirement, leaving the possible impression that this would be a widespread cost saving provision. In our area this would generally not be the case, though it would stop a trend that is growing in some other areas of the state.

Of course there are claims in anti-Issue Two advertising that also frustrate me.  The claim that fire-fighters won't be able to bargain for the size of the firefighting force may be technically true.  But it implies that this critical aspect of delivering fire service won't be attended to unless it is bargained into a labor contract. I don't buy this. The truth is nearly the opposite -- without passage of this bill budget crunch dynamics are more likely to force reductions than if it passes.

Actually, in most of our area fire protection and emergency rescue services are received from volunteer heroes who are paid little or nothing for their services.

All the heat right now developing around Issue Two illustrates the problem with trying to legislate at the ballot box. It is difficult to get past the sound bites to the real issues.

I generally prefer representative governing, even with its shortcomings.

But I live and work in the real world, and am called on to exercise leadership on the issues that confront us -- like State Issue Two.