Normally, I try to keep my nose out of local politics because there is a whole different rhythm that requires you to be right there and immersed in order to understand it-particularly in small towns like Grants Pass. But right now Grants Pass is the center of Oregon’s universe in a struggle to wrest control over government fiscal policy and spending levels from the public employees unions.
It appears that Josephine County officials are prepared to do what neither the legislature nor the governors over the past 20 years have had the courage to do-curb wage and benefit increases to the public employees unions. And even more so, they appear to be prepared to take a strike by the unions and to replace striking workers with temporary and permanent workers. We haven’t seen that kind of courage when it comes to public employee unions since President Ronald Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers en masse.
One of the central issues to the bargaining is the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). Even though the costs of the PERS systems are threatening to bankrupt many local governments, Oregon’s Supreme Court has made it crystal clear that public employees, unlike their counterparts in the private sector, get benefits for life. In other words, an excess mistakenly given in the past becomes permanent. Worse yet, their counterparts in the private sector have to pay for those excesses. But there is a dent that elected officials can put in the excesses of the PERS system-they can stop paying for the employees’ 6 percent match.
Somewhere back in time, the public employees union decided to forego one of its periodic excessive demands for wage increases, in exchange for the government paying for the employee’s 6 percent match. I’ve never quite figured out why that would be considered a union “concession” because it was an automatic and immediate 6 percent salary increase. My guess is that some astute politician realized (with a gentle assist from the union leaders) that he or she could claim to have held the line on public employee salaries by claiming no salary increases and ignoring the increased benefits.
This serves as a warning to taxpayers that increases in public employees’ compensation should be measured by the cost to government and not by the take-home check to the employees. Increasing costs of health care programs and PERS funding are adding to the salary demands of the unions.
In this instance, the Josephine County officials appear to be demanding that employees pay for their own match to the PERS system. How can you argue with that when it is precisely what the statutes creating the bloated PERS system contemplated? This is a small but significant step in curbing one of the most abusive public employee retirement systems in the nation.
So what can we expect from this strike? Well, it may well be over by the time this column is published, but if it isn’t, we can expect threats, intimidation and violence. It is unlikely that any of the local members of the unions will engage in such conduct because Grants Pass is a small community and the local workers live, work and play within the community where there are few secrets and fewer anonymous people. But you can count on the state organizations to send in their usual band of thugs and goons.
Those who cross the picket line will be threatened directly and indirectly. There will be late night calls to families of the temporary replacements. There will be vandalism to their cars and homes. And the threats will come directly and tangentially to the public officials. Rumors will be spread, vicious letters to the editors will be written, and they will be accused of everything short of sinking the Titanic. The politics of intimidation and personal destruction will be practiced with a vengeance.
But in the end, the county officials are right. They need to take back control of government spending from the unions. They need to restructure the work rules to insure that government operates efficiently. And they need to find creative ways to purge the burden of PERS. But most of all, they need your support in this endeavor. Given the level of abuse that they are about to receive, they need to hear that you agree with them in order to give them the courage to stand fast against Oregon’s public employees unions.