Will Kitzhaber take hard line with public employee unions?

By Dave Lister

I groaned when I received notification that my Oregon driver’s license could not be renewed by mail. It was time for a new photograph and, because of my age, a vision test.

Even though I dreaded the trip, I showed up at a Department of Motor Vehicles branch office early the next day. Fourth in line, I hardly had time to fill out my paperwork before I was called. A cheerful, courteous woman examined my documents and administered my eye test. We shared some chuckles while she let me take the test a second time just to see if I could pass without my glasses (barely) and helped me with the decision to change my official hair color to gray (the truth hurts). The whole experience was quick and painless.

Months later, at the height of the holiday rush, I went to the post office. I arrived early, but there was already a long queue and only one window open. The lone clerk was helping a customer with a huge bag of packages. After looking over his shoulder toward the sorting room a few times, the clerk went around the corner to ask for help. He returned with a scowl.

“I’m sorry folks,” he declared loudly, “they don’t care and the Postal Service doesn’t care.”

I was dumbfounded, but I admired his courage.

Public employees, like those in the private sector, come in all categories. Some are conscientious and hard working. Some are uncaring and lazy. They’re people, just like the rest of us. What sets many of them apart are the unions that represent them and a political system that gives those unions unprecedented power to collectively bargain at the state and local level.

Years ago, many public employees agreed to accept less in wages for more in benefits. If you worked for the government, you could expect to earn less in the short run. But over the years, increases and adjustments have driven those wages ever upward. Non-professional public-sector employees now earn as much or more than their private-sector counterparts while retaining those better benefits. When their unions sit down to negotiate, the faces across the table are often those of politicians elected with the help of campaign contributions derived from union dues collected by the state itself through payroll deductions. The adversarial component of fair negotiation is missing.

Now that cash-strapped states are digging in their heels and trying to curb their power, public-sector unions are crying foul. The union workers turning out to demonstrate portray themselves as another era’s Appalachian coal miners or Mississippi textile workers fighting for a fair wage and a full lunchbox. They claim to be the last bastion of the middle class. But for those of us who have gone without pay raises for years — or actually taken cuts — their claims of having already done their part by taking a few furlough days or not receiving an increase in the last contract wear thin.

Oregon’s Service Employees International Union recently proposed a billion-dollar deficit-reduction plan for Oregon that didn’t include a single concession from its members.

Gov. John Kitzhaber is now entering negotiations with the state’s public unions. Initially it appears he may be adopting a hard line, following the old saw that if you can’t drink their whiskey and take their money and still vote against them in the morning, you don’t belong in public office. It will be interesting to see if he succeeds. If he does, they will likely punish him in future campaigns.

Then again, he may not want another term. Maybe he sought his unprecedented third term only to change his infamous “ungovernable” legacy. Either way, he might get help from the Legislature. If lawmakers adopt the “code of the west,” as has been proposed, it could stiffen his backbone. After all, he already has the boots and the belt buckle.

Dave Lister is a small-business owner who served on Portland’s Small Business Advisory Council.