I do defend the basic concept of unions, and what's happened to the middle class since their decline ought to be positive proof of their value to the average worker in America.
It's a requirement for all Republicans to be union haters, so I don't pay much attention to them on the subject, as it usually consists of political dogma or outright venom based mostly on their support of Democrats over Republicans than anything else. However, I'd like to suggest a few ways unions, especially public employee unions, specifically CSEA, could help themselves. I'd also have to include the various branches of state government in this issue, as they are rather integral to any improvement.
Years ago I was ostracized on the CSEA board of directors for suggesting something was amiss with CSEA's insurance offerings for automobiles and such, proving easily that our so-called group rate was a myth and I could get insurance of equal or better quality for sometimes 50 percent of the cost of our supposed "group rate discount." Therefore, my suggestion was to make an offer to another company for the business for our members.
The reaction, to me, was shocking (I was young then, and somewhat of an idealist). Meetings were called, decisions and votes delayed, all kinds of back-room deals until an obviously set up vote could be organized to keep things as they were.
Amazingly, the CSEA employee making the presentation a short time later went to work for the insurance company in question. Over the years I came to understand that this was not at all unusual.
I also suggested that it seemed foolish for us to negotiate, at the time, about six different health insurance plans. It seemed obvious that we'd do much better by placing hundreds of thousands of state employees under the umbrella of one company. I'd have to assume a much lower rate, which could obviously be rebid on occasion if rates started to climb. Again, I was immediately shot down.
Now think about this; if all of the health insurance for every employee of New York state was the domain of one company and under a bid process, there is no way for the price of that insurance to go anywhere but down. Any concerns for specific benefits carried by one provider and not another could be met with negotiated "riders." Picture all local governments having the ability to buy into that same insurance plan, from the counties down to the smallest levels of government. Much is made about shared services and the savings that can occur from that. I can't imagine a bigger expense for most employers than health insurance.
CSEA could be at the forefront of this type of thinking, and perhaps even garner a bit of image polishing in the process. Instead, any efforts to consolidate the insurance plans offered by the state have generally been met with resistance. I hate to suggest something is amiss, but generally when you see situations like this where the status quo makes no sense at all, somebody is making out by leaving things as they are.
Some years ago Tier 3 employees were faced with paying for their retirement. It made sense. It was affordable. A very few overtimes a year would have made up the difference and the overtimes were and are always available for the majority of staff. The result should have been that the retirement hits being leveled on localities would have been much, much smaller, if they occurred at all. Instead of leaving things alone, having the foresight to see the downturn in our economy and thus the incomes of the taxpayers, CSEA and other public unions fought to eliminate the employee contribution to the retirement system.
In spite of the fact that New York state has one of the most fully funded retirement accounts in the country, localities are being decimated by unexpected demands by the state for that same fund. This is a clear case of short-sighted leadership and harmful to all. This leads me to another huge reason why local governments are being bled by the retirement system, and that is the inclusion of overtime wages into the mix.
The worst offenders of this are police and firemen, due to the way in which their overtime is distributed. In most state branches of government, as well as most local governments, the overtime is rotated from a list. In the case of police and firemen, the most senior employee gets first "dibs" on all of the available overtime. Therefore, those approaching retirement can double their income in a very short time, leaving service with double the pension benefits they would have received if it were based on their base pay.
Looking at other state and local employees, it takes more time, but if one is industrious enough, one can double their rate of pay in seven years. The bottom line is that people making $40,000 a year often retire with a pension of $90,000 a year. You can readily see where this would deplete a retirement system that is designed for a payout of half that much money. In my opinion, a person working that kind of overtime can pad their retirement with private savings, with IRA's or that sort of thing. Again, any union supporting the current system is bringing negative attention to the employees they represent.
The best example I can find for any public union of this sort of thing is the Buffalo Teachers Union and their insistence on keeping a misused rider in their health insurance plan that allows for plastic surgery. A rider that was designed to allow for accidents resulting in disfigurement is now being used for breast enlargements, face lifts and tummy tucks to the tune of thousands of dollars the Buffalo school system cannot afford.
A truly forward looking union, representing its members and not turning everything into a power play or an argument, or not looking to profit from the status quo, wouldn't need anyone to point these things out. I must also lay equal blame at the feet of our elected officials who've failed miserably to deal with the impending fiscal storm.
Leadership? I don't think so - from either side of the table.
Paul Christopher is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org