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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Unions, Pensions, and Politics

Our chapter on interest groups notes the changing character of organized labor. Union members are now more likely to be white collar than blue collar, public sector than private sector. The New York Times reports:

Across the nation, a rising irritation with public employee unions is palpable, as a wounded economy has blown gaping holes in state, city and town budgets, and revealed that some public pension funds dangle perilously close to bankruptcy. In California, New York, Michigan and New Jersey, states where public unions wield much power and the culture historically tends to be pro-labor, even longtime liberal political leaders have demanded concessions — wage freezes, benefit cuts and tougher work rules.

It is an angry conversation. Union chiefs, who sometimes persuaded members to take pension sweeteners in lieu of raises, are loath to surrender ground. Taxpayers are split between those who want cuts and those who hope that rising tax receipts might bring easier choices.

And a growing cadre of political leaders and municipal finance experts argue that much of the edifice of municipal and state finance is jury-rigged and, without new revenue, perhaps unsustainable. Too many political leaders, they argue, acted too irresponsibly, failing to either raise taxes or cut spending.

Robert Holland and Don Soifer write in The Oklahoman:

Currently in the United States, state and local government employees’ pension and retiree health-benefit plans are under water to the tune of some $3.6 trillion, according to researchers at the Kellogg School of Management.
With government workers now comprising more than half of labor union membership in the United States, the priorities of current union leadership may be more at odds with those of average working Americans than at any time previously.
For the most part, public-sector workers enjoy more paid leave and vacation time, more job security, better benefits for which they pay less, and in many cases higher salaries than private sector employees.
Historically, the mission of public-employee unions has been to preserve and augment the benefits of teachers, police officers, firefighters, and others in their ranks who serve the public. However, the budgetary crisis that is nudging many state and local governments closer to bankruptcy is making many union rallying cries ring more hollow by the day.

The Hill reports:

The country's public pension system is grossly underfunded and needs an overhaul, Rep. Devin Nunes said this week.

The California Republican is promoting legislation designed to gauge the extent of the problem, while also establishing a ban on federal bailouts of public pension programs.

"Part of the problem that we have today … is we don't know what the truly unfunded liabilities are," Nunes told Fox News on Friday. "We need to know exactly what the number is. We can't make decisions at any level of government if we don't know what the true undisclosed benefit is or liability is for these benefits."

Nunes' comments came on the same day that the Pittsburgh City Council passed an emergency funding bill designed to prevent the state of Pennsylvania from taking over the city's underfunded pension system.

That episode, Nunes said, "proves a point that everyone in America needs to know what is it exactly that we owe our public employees."