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Union Giveback Could Start a Good Precedent

March 18th, 2010 by dk

The voices of Eugeneans have risen as one against a $250,000 expenditure to replace 50 highway signs to honor Randy Papé as the new namesake of the Beltline Highway. There’s nothing like a perception of the rich getting richer to unify Eugene.
My son had an idea: The Papé family could change its name to Beltline. That would probably be cheaper.
I hate it as much as the next guy when government “finds” money for an unplanned project like this one. It makes me think that government isn’t paying its cleaning staff well enough if the public’s money is so easily misplaced and then suddenly located.
But then I remember how much the city pays its janitorial staff: $16.58 per hour, plus full benefits for an approximate annual compensation package of $45,000, which is 30 percent higher than the average income of all Oregonians in 2007 ($34,784) and 20 percent higher than the 2007 per capita personal income for the United States ($38,611), according to Oregon’s official “Blue Book” of troubling statistics.
Those numbers may sound familiar because in January the city chose to outsource some overnight janitorial services at the library to save a hundred grand a year. Even though the move cost no city worker their job and saved the city a bundle, the city’s largest public employee union objected. American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1724 filed a grievance against the city.
“This is a bad precedent,” said AFSCME business representative Rick Henson.
Speaking of bad precedents, AFSCME last week prevailed in a different dispute with the city. Arbiter Luella Nelson ruled that the city violated its contract with the union by unilaterally requiring each employee to reduce their hours worked by five percent.
The arbiter ruled against the city, and now the city must pay for those unpaid hours. On April 9, the average AFSCME worker will receive a windfall of $1,000 each, give or take, for work that was wrongfully denied them — but also work they did not do.
That money comes more directly out of Eugeneans’ pockets than the $250,000 the state plans to spend splashing the Papé name around the Beltline. ODOT’s money comes from all Oregonians, so it’s a safe bet that most of the money being spent on signs started in the pockets of Portlanders. At least we get some new signs out of the deal, and we honor one of our own. The city’s mandated giveback to AFSCME workers gets us nothing, unless we’re among those 650 employees.
I’m not suggesting city workers don’t earn their money. I know many of these people and each one dresses well, coaches Kidsports, bikes to work, and flosses regularly. They are good people and they do good work. But this money coming their way is compensation for the hours when they did not work. It’s free money for them, at a time when money doesn’t feel very free to any of us.
If the public unions aren’t careful, they could find themselves in the public’s “rich get richer” crosshairs. Unions protect workers from management abuses and good for them. Management erred and that is being corrected. But non-union workers are also watching, and it’s their tax dollars being dispensed.
Let’s start a good precedent. I’m asking AFSCME to coordinate a giveback for the giveback. You’ve fought for your members and you’re winning. Congratulations. Now fight for our entire community. Set up a simple collection fund. Help your members donate some or all of their windfall to local charities that help the most desperate among us. Make it easy and painless.
Develop your own strategy for lifting the downtrodden around us. Invest the money from your members in charities that pay their employees well, or ones that share the burden best between workers and management. Reward best practices. Fashion the fund as a challenge grant, so that non-union citizens can join your effort. Buy some highway signs if you think it’ll help your cause.
Take the lead. Send a message to your members and to the rest of us. Step up and show leadership that all of us can admire. Give back to our community collectively, as so many of you already do individually. Show us that AFSCME doesn’t end with “me.”
Don Kahle ( has never been represented by a union, but he wouldn’t mind. He writes a column for The Register-Guard each week and blogs.

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