It is Us Against Them

On July 11, 2006, Governor Kulongoski announced that he signed former Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt as an adviser to his gubernatorial campaign. On July 18, Kulongoski announced that he had received the endorsement of the AFL-CIO’s American Federation of Teachers (public employee union). The Oregon Education Association (public employee union) and the Oregon School Employees Association (public employee union) had previously endorsed Kulongoski. On July 31, Kulongoski announced that he had received the endorsement of the state’s largest public employee union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

It’s no wonder that on July 25, during a speech to the AFL-CIO, which is dominated by the public employee unions, Kulongoski had this to say:

“. . . I’ve never lost sight of who I represent, and that’s you.”

And let’s make sure that we understand who the “you” is in that statement. Kulongoski wasn’t speaking to the Democrat Party, he was speaking to the unions. It wasn’t an open campaign event, it was a meeting of the unions. The “you” whom Kulongoski represents is the unions – the public employees unions in particular. Kulongoski went on to tell the union leadership that it is “us against them.” Even Kulongoski appears to concede that this gubernatorial race is about who runs the state – the public employee unions or the citizens who pay their way.

And what is the quid pro quo for the public employee unions’ support of Kulongoski? Well it comes in obvious and not so obvious ways.

We all know that the principle goal of the public employee unions is to generate more money to be used in the political process to enlarge and sustain their control. The public employee unions have a payroll checkoff system that results in state, county, local and school governments sending them payments in excess of $50 million per biennium (election cycle). To increase the funds available you have to increase the number of public employees and/or their wages. Kulongoski has already signaled that he intends to increase state government spending by $2 billion – eighty percent of which is spent on salary increases for current employees and hiring for new employees. An additional $2 billion in increased state spending will increase dramatically the amount turned over to the unions through the payroll checkoff system.

The public employee pensions system (PERS) has piled up a staggering unfunded future liability. Through clever accounting and utilization of bonding, it is virtually impossible to calculate the current unfunded liability but we do know that it was nearly $14 billion (an amount that exceeds the current general fund budget) in 2001 and that it currently requires nearly 21 percent (as compared to a six percent in Washington) surcharge to salary expense to fund. Kulongoski has promised to veto any attempts to reform this abusive system – a system that keeps school districts from hiring more teachers because they have to pay for the excessive pension benefits. How many more teachers could Oregon afford if that 15% difference could be redirected to hiring rather than funding the greed of the public employee unions?

There are also some not so obvious ways in which the public employees unions are rewarded for their support.

For instance, one of the first contracts up for re-negotiation in 2007, shortly after the new term of the next governor begins, is an SEIU contract. Buried in the SEIU contract is a provision that prohibits the state from “out sourcing” to private entities any function that is or has been performed by a public employee union member. That means that it is impossible to avoid the burden of excessive pension costs, the highest health care benefits in the state, and work rules that permit union members over four weeks of time off for vacation, “sick leave,” “personal days” plus all state “holidays.” Don’t you wish you had all of that rather than just paying for it? Kulongoski will approve renewal of the provisions as well as expand them to other public employee union contracts that do not already have such provisions.

The previously mentioned Tim Nesbitt, former head of the state AFL-CIO, has been appointed by Kulongoski to be a member of the Board of Higher Education. The Board has direct and indirect control over the negotiation of future collective bargaining agreements with the public employee unions, including teachers unions. It is the moral equivalent of putting a fox in the hen house.

A review of the visitor’s, telephone and e-mail logs of Governor Kulongoski’s office would show an almost continuous procession of public employee union officials and public employee union lobbyists. A review of appointments by Kulongoski to the boards and agencies of the state would show a generous smattering of public employee union members.

Kulongoski is right – it is “us against them.” For him the “us” is the public employees unions. The “them” is the rest of Oregonians who must foot the bill for the continued cronyism, favoritism, and inefficient delivery of public services to the detriment of those who need them most.