Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Anna Griffin on Oregon Unions

Anna Griffin put out a sharp column criticizing public employee unions in Oregon and particularly Portland.  The short version:
Back before government started regulating industry and muckraking
reporters decided that 18-hour workdays weren't healthy, union
organizers were the true reformers.

They kept factories safe,
made whistle-blowing possible and generally looked out for the little


Yet public employee unions now seem to block change more than promote

How fair is this?  Griffin cites four examples to back up her claim.

First, deputies and corrections officers stopped Multnomah County from changing the County Sheriff's position to one appointed instead of being elected.  That qualifies as blocking change, but is it blocking a reform?  That looks more to me like a turf battle, the kind that afflicts any large bureaucracy.  Ted Wheeler wanted a sheriff subordinate to the county commission, the sheriff and his people wanted to retain independence.  Where is the reform?

Second, Portland police and civilian oversight.  Griffin is on firm ground here, sadly.  The union under Westerman was nuts and an emarrassment to the city.  I give this one to Griffin with an asterisk for the fact that union leadership makes a big difference, for better or for worse.

Third Griffin cites the Portland teachers union for balking at reopening their contract and accepting a salary freeze.  The union may be harming the public good, but I don't see this is a reform issue.  I've heard of many large corporations where there was no union and management unilaterally announced wage freezes.  That may have been for the good of the company but was it reform in any meaningful sense?  Griffin could actually make a much better case against the teachers.  They oppose switching class schedules from a 5/7 (teach 5 out of 7 periods and take 2 for prep) to a 6/8.  The 6/8 allows more total sections and increases the potential offerings of a school without increasing cost, it is also the norm in the metro region outside of PPS.  There is also the union's opposition to charter schools.  Either of those make a more compelling case for obstructing reform then seeking higher wages.  I'll give a point here because the teachers union is obstructing reform, even if it isn't for the reasons Griffin gives.

Finally, Griffin cites state employees for opposing cuts in benefits.  At first blush this looks like a fight over pay, like the teachers union issue above.  However I think the pension issue deserves special consideration.  The pension plan essentially acts as deferred compensation, it allows the state and municipalities to put people on the payroll now and pay later.  That is a terrible practice policy wise, it allows agencies to avoid balancing their budget and saddle future taxpayers with deferred compensation payments.  I'd say ending that constitutes reform.  The fight over health care benefits is not as that is paid up front.  So half a point here.

Griffin says that 3 points make a trend, by that measure she comes up short at 2.5.  I wish she used a finer brush in painting her criticism of the unions.  There are real problems that have to be confronted, using loose rhetoric doesn't make that task easier.

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