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Oh, blessed bargaining: What is it?

Oh, blessed bargaining: What is it?

We’re hearing a great deal about the sanctity of collective bargaining these days, what with the sho

We’re hearing a great deal about the sanctity of collective bargaining these days, what with the showdown in Wisconsin, but I must say as a long-time observer of local government in the Capital Region what has struck me most about collective bargaining has been the secrecy of it.

By law, negotiations between a union and a government agency are closed to the public unless both sides agree to open them, which they never do, and what’s more, the results of those negotiations have long been obscure too, though that is beginning to change.

School boards, city councils and town boards have never in my experience printed up copies of the contracts they have negotiated and made them freely available to the public. They just put out an innocuous statement about the percent raise that was granted, stating that is was fair to all concerned under the circumstances. No details, no mention of hidden goodies.

You could get the whole document if you filed a Freedom of Information request and paid 25 cents a page, but few people did.

Now, at last, the contracts are posted online, thanks not to local governments but to private organizations like the Empire Center for New York State Policy. The Governor’s Office of Employee Relations also posts state contracts online, finally.

What has been achieved in secret negotiations has been partly straightforward — a certain percent raise — and partly devious, by which I mean roundabout ways of paying employees without calling it that.

One example will suffice: the recent contract negotiated with the faculty of Fulton-Montgomery Community College, which provides that, in lieu of a larger raise, members can get paid for seven of their 12 allotted sick days, at the rate of $100 a day, and the extra $700 a year will be counted as part of their salary for purposes of computing future raises.

You could fill a book with such little tricks. Every contract I’ve ever seen contains them, though sometimes you need a labor lawyer to translate them for you.

Another thing is, the terms of the contracts are usually not made public before the school board or city council votes on them. The public finds out after the fact, if at all.

The most egregious example I recall was in Stillwater in 2006, when the school board unilaterally bestowed raises and guarantees on the teachers’ union without telling anyone about it until after the deal was done, even refusing to confirm it when I revealed the details in print.

Much of collective bargaining is a sham anyway, thanks to binding arbitration for some unions, like police and fire, and to the state’s infamous Triborough Amendment for everyone.

Binding arbitration means if labor and management don’t agree, a supposedly neutral arbitrator comes in and settles the matter. The way it has worked out in practice, however, is that the arbitrator declines to change anything already in a contract except for salaries.

The city of Schenectady, for example, can demand managerial changes in its Police Department till it’s blue in the face. An arbitrator just does a salary comparison with similar-sized cities and says, well, the others averaged a 3 percent raise, so you get a 3 percent raise also. Case closed. Which means the police union has little need to negotiate. They can just sit on their hands and wait for the arbitrator to arrive with his calculator.

The Triborough Amendment requires that contracts for public employees stay in effect even after they reach the end of their term, and if those contracts call for automatic raises every year, so-called step raises, those raises keep right on coming even as union members complain they are “working without a contract.”

So teachers, for example, have little reason to negotiate, and their collective bargaining is thus a farce also.

One of the things the Stillwater school board achieved, a majority of its members being teachers themselves, in other districts, was to guarantee automatic 3 percent raises a year whenever a new contract has not been negotiated, which of course renders negotiations meaningless.

So when I hear union leaders and their Democratic friends wax indignant now about the sanctity of collective bargaining, I hope I can be forgiven a cynical smirk.

If there were honest, open negotiations between public employee unions and representatives of the taxpaying public, do you suppose the pensions of state retirees would be free of state taxes?

Another thing I’m hearing more and more is that we should not begrudge middle-class workers their salaries and their pensions, we should begrudge the super-rich their super-richness, as if it were a question of one or the other.

This view is stated most forcefully in the latest issue of the New Yorker, by Hendrik Hertzberg, former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, who details the growing economic inequality in this country: “In 1980, the best-off tenth of American families collected about a third of the nation’s income. Now they’re getting close to a half. The top one percent is getting a full fifth, double what it got in 1980. The super-rich — the top one-tenth of the top one percent, which is to say the top one-thousandth — have been the biggest winners of all.”

“Organized labor,” he says, “for all its failings, all its shortsightedness, all its ‘special interest’ selfishness, remains the only truly formidable counterweight to the ever-growing political power of that top one-thousandth.”

So there you have it — either the Goldman Sachs board of directors or the Stillwater teachers’ union. Take your pick.

And let’s not dwell over-much on the unions’ special-interest selfishness, which may not be very different from the special-interest selfishness of Goldman Sachs. Just more dispersed, you might say.

My problem is I don’t know where that leaves the rest of us. Should we cheerfully pay ever higher taxes for the benefit of cops and teachers in the hope that it will keep Goldman Sachs from running amok?

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