Union Leaders Stand Up for Quality Services
Let's start out by acknowledging a basic truth: Cheaper is not always better or more efficient.
This is especially true when it comes to government.
If our roads and bridges aren't well-maintained, if a social worker isn't available for an at-risk teen, if there are delays in processing disability claims due to understaffing, if a parole officer has more cases than he can thoroughly follow up on, these kinds of shortfalls all have very real social and safety costs that don't show up as line items on any budget.
It is politically fashionable at the moment to attack public workers and their unions. At the county, city, state and national level, it is easier to look for scapegoats than to offer real solutions that will create good jobs, increase the tax base and get our economy going again.
Rhetoric that demonizes public workers, seeking deep cuts without recognizing the reality of deep consequences, does little to balance the books and even less to make sure that vital services are delivered consistently and well.
Hopefully, we all can agree that we want our front-line public employees such as firefighters, teachers and nurses focused on the job at hand rather than worrying about how to support their families or wondering if the pensions that they were promised are going to actually be there by the time they retire. By giving workers a voice on the job, public-sector unions help ensure that all citizens receive good value for their tax money.
We all must be vigilant, lest our public services cross the line from lean and mean to frail and ineffective. Wisconsin already ranks 44th in terms of total number of state employees per capita based on U.S. census data. And according to an April 2010 study by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee researchers Keith A. Bender and John S. Heywood, public-sector employees' total compensation is 6% below their peers in the private sector; this study considered both pay and benefits.
Union negotiations are the most democratic way to make sure that government workers have the tools and incentives that they need to do their jobs properly. And let's not forget that what's best for workers is not always at odds with the bottom line. Through their unions, public workers frequently negotiate to lower costs. For example, in Milwaukee County, AFSCME Council 48 was the catalyst in making wellness and disease management part of the health care package offered to employees that has saved significant money on health care costs.
These types of preventative measures save lives and dollars. In the City of West Allis, the union was the impetus behind an innovative economic package that was directly linked to the city's revenues. This innovation saved money and protected public services.
No one, with the possible exception of a few shortsighted politicians, benefits when the relationship between public workers and taxpayers becomes adversarial. At the end of the day, we all live in the same communities; we all reap the rewards of good government and we all suffer when corners are cut. The road to economic growth and future prosperity is not paved with inferior public services.
Public employee unions play a critical role in negotiating real government efficiency, which must take into account the quality of the services delivered. The labor movement at large is calling on our elected leaders to stop dismantling public employment and start thinking of ways to rebuild the private sector with jobs that include family-staining wages, heath care and retirement security.
Rich Abelson is executive director of AFSCME Council 48, which represents county and city employees in the Milwaukee area. Phil Neuenfeldt is president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, which represents more than 250,000 workers in both the public and private sector.