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oped – Measure 30

March 17th, 2005 by Admi

by Don Kahle

Every tax vote in the post-timber Northwest is a referendum on unions. Since the logging industry collapsed in the 1980s, the only large and viable labor unions left are in the public sector.

Meantime, competition in the private sector has intensified to such a degree that no worker not represented by a union feels safe, regardless of their skill or devotion or history. When those workers become voters, how they feel about unions is bound to factor into their ballot decisions.

Bill Sizemore and his followers know that unions are what stand in their way to making this state a low-tax wonderland. Thats why several of his recent initiatives have targeted how unions, especially those articulate and energized teachers, are allowed to speak and spend collectively.

Its a safe guess that most unrepresented workers compare their situation with that of unionized workers doing similar work and feel some tinge of envy. But does that envy show up as resentment or resolve?

I work downtown near a parking lot we share with the nearby federal offices. I noticed that the lot was nearly empty the last two weeks of the year, presumably because everybody was taking vacation time during the holidays. I have more than one friend who works in government who report those are the best days to work because the halls are quiet and theres plenty of free food. Its the perfect time to clean my desk and catch up on e-mail, Ive been told.

During that same time, our business is open extended hours because we know we must keep up with our competitors. Wed all like to be home with our families but instead we have to divvy up the vacation time to keep everything moving 52 weeks a year. Would we rather be home on Christmas week? Sure, but the choice is not offered to us.

Seeing that others get a better deal stirs resentment in some, insisting that government employees be stripped of their benefits package so we can all be equal. Others see the disparity and resolve to find ways to lift the standards everywhere to what they consider humane and rewarding.

We all want government to be lean, but must it also be mean? Efficiency is good, but it is not the only good. Theres also something to be said for giving people meaningful work at a reasonable pace with fair pay and security.

Much of what we call efficiency in government amounts to outsourcing social services to non-unionized nonprofit agencies, where the pay scaled for some management positions wont keep a family of four above the poverty line. Without the burden of collective bargaining, these agencies can pay whatever the market will bear and improve working conditions only when expediency requires.

Many voters seem unable to comprehend that budget cuts will be constricted by union contracts, no matter how severe the mandate. Shortening the school year or cutting teachers salaries cannot be done without reopening negotiations on the collective bargaining agreement. Whatever expediency requires, the courts may not necessarily allow.

PERS has ensured that the perceived disparity between unionized public employees and non-unionized private employees continues beyond a voters working years. Collective bargaining done with the state cannot be undone easily or at all, while private pension plans remain as frail as the companies who provide them. This disparity may follow some workers in the state all the way to death.

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