Letter to the Editor: Public Employee Unions Must be Banned from Endorsing Politicians Who Negotiate Their Contracts

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I’m a former Democratic Mayor from union-dominated Ohio and I’ve long believed that if voters knew the real reasons political candidates received public employee union endorsements, they’d never vote for them again. That is unless they were a member of a public employee union or a relative.

While the average American voter believes politicians are seeking endorsements from the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the Fraternal Order of Police or the International Association of Firefighters because of a joint belief in good government, the closed door discussions are purely political. The endorsements come in exchange for the enactment of favorable laws, contractual concessions and appointments to board and commissions that benefit a tiny but powerful segment of the American labor force.

According to a 2009 report of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, 85.7 percent of all American workers are non-union and 15.3 percent are union. 7.9 percent of all American workers are in public employee unions.
But because 92.1 percent of the American workforce pays taxes that pay the wages and benefits of public employees – money that’s then diverted to union dues used to finance well-funded political action committees – “organized” public employees wield disproportionate influence over Democratic and Republican candidates for local, state and federal political offices. In the heavily-unionized states, candidates for governor, state senator, state representative, mayor, city council, school board, commissioner, auditor, treasurer, sheriff, prosecuting attorney and judge fight for endorsements that come with fat campaign contributions and volunteers to man phone banks, and to distribute yard signs and literature.

In exchange, governors, state senators and state representatives modify laws to force states, counties, cities, villages and townships to fork over more of their tight supply of tax dollars to fund public employee benefit plans and to garner wage concessions all designed to enhance their retirement check when they retire. The union-backed politicians stack critical public policy boards and commissions, such as state employee relations boards, with appointees favorable to the public employee unions’ agenda.

An Ohio example can be found in Democratic Governor Ted Strickland’s appointment of Rev. N. Eugene Brundige as chairman of the State Employee Relations Board (SERB). Brundige is a former president of the Ohio Education Association and an arbitrator.

Earlier this year newly-elected Toledo Mayor Mike Bell filed a complaint with SERB alleging that 71 cops violated state labor laws by conducting a “blue flu” strike during contentious labor negotiations over wages and benefits. Cops called off sick to voice their dissatisfaction with Bell’s plan to force them to pay the 10 percent employee share of their pension and to contribute to their medical insurance. When Brundige and his two SERB colleagues got the complaint, they sided with the union and said “the strike didn’t look like a real strike.”

To the disdain of mayors and councils who manage financially-strapped cities, state employee relations boards have been organized by law to give arbitrators the final word on whether or not a governmental entity has the ability to afford pay and benefit increases. In all cases, that specific language was written into the law as a direct request of the public employee union bosses who knew they could pressure governors to stack boards with labor-friendly appointees.

“These men and women deserve raises,” I was consistently told by arbitrators for four years even when non-union public employees could get no raises and bore the brunt of lay-offs and work hour reductions.

One arbitrator told me to lay-off younger cops despite the threat to resident safety in a fiscally-challenged city where I had already enlisted the help of sheriff’s deputies to patrol our crime-plagued streets. He didn’t care. He lived somewhere else on his $100,000 a year annual wages as a public employee.

Taxpayers can forget about finding any relief from the union-backed judges of either party. I know of one former Republican common pleas judge in Cuyahoga County, Jeffrey Hastings, who took his ruling against the city I represented to the International Association of Firefighters. He did this to show its officials that he was union-friendly. Another common pleas judge, a former firefighter, asked one of my city lawyers why I was firing firefighters.

Last year Heather Fong retired as San Francisco’s $324,567 a year police chief after 32 years on-the-job. Fong cashed in her unused vacation time, sick time and comp time (calculated at time-and-a-half) at a rate of about $156 an hour instead of the rate she earned the unused time as a lower-ranking cop. This means, as an example, that if Fong earned 100 hours in unused vacation time at $20 an hour 30 years ago, she cashed it in for $156 an hour 30 years later. Not only did she walk away with over $300,000 in cash, but Fong also got a lifelong pension that’s worth $266,000 a year for the 55-year-old retiree, and she isn’t alone.

A report this year from the city of San Francisco’s civil grand jury entitled, “Pension Tsunami: The Billion Dollar Bubble,” identified 900 retired city workers who are currently earning $100,000 annually, and more, for life.

The New York Times reported in May 2010 that Hugo Tassone, a retired New York patrol officer, was earning $101,333 a year for life after he left three years ago at age 44. Tassone wasn’t the chief, a deputy chief, a captain, a lieutenant or a sergeant. He was a patrol officer.

Tassone was able to increase his highest years’ earnings because his bosses scheduled him for large amounts of overtime at time-and-a-half. Reporters went beyond Tassone and revealed that some of the overtime received by New York cops was included on payroll records even though it was earned while they worked off-duty assignments for private contractors who hired and paid them.

Some of the worst pension fund abusers are school administrative officials; particularly double-dipping superintendents who retire, collect their pensions and return to the same six-figure job.

School districts are closed-shops … period. While raises for superintendents are typically tied to the contracts they negotiate, the six-figure administrators they supervise have an unspoken “me too” provision that lets them get the same pay increases as the employees in the teachers’ unions.

Since administrators are often involved in contract negotiations, there’s little motivation for them to negotiate agreements that cut rather than increase wages and benefits among their longtime colleagues. I found this to be troubling when I served as a mayoral-appointee to a Financial Planning & Supervision Commission that oversaw a mismanaged school district that turned a $12 million surplus into a $7.8 million deficit. Out of its $56 million budget the first $8 million went to pay retiree pensions and benefits.

Voters can point the finger of blame at both Democratic and Republican governors, state senators and state representatives who have accepted endorsements from public employee unions, and who afterwards have written and signed laws to benefit them, and themselves. In many states, politicians have restructured laws to give themselves the same access to public sector benefits as the public employees who endorse them, and whose labor agreements they’re supposed to negotiate and approve. It’s a conflict-of-interest so compelling that even those with absolutely no political savvy can see it.

The majority of American states have ethics laws that prohibit this type of self-dealing among elected and appointed officials. But none have enacted laws that separate the interests of the public employees they’re supposed to manage versus the interests of the 92.1 percent of the voters they were elected to represent.

As a former mayor, the topic of public employee pension funds was never discussed at any of the local or statewide meetings of mayors and city managers whose meeting agendas I had access to, nor in any of the “association” publications I’ve read from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities or the special interest mayoral associations.
I searched the U.S. Conference of Mayors website and found one article after conducting a keyword search for “public sector retirement.” The article was published on June 26, 2000 during the 68th Mayors Annual Conference in Seattle, Washington. It featured comments from Duane Meek, the president of Nationwide Retirement Solutions.

Meek’s company administers the U.S. Conference of Mayors deferred compensation plan and $48 billion in pension-related assets for over 7800 governmental entities and 1.5 million public employees.

He told the mayors in 2000 that private sector employees had better pension plans than public employees. Meek thought public sector employers should encourage public employees to join deferred compensation plans and that taxpayers should contribute equally to the public employees’ retirement. This is exactly the opposite of what mayors who are trying to tighten their budgets and deliver services to their residents are seeking to accomplish.

While Meeks’s plan sounds like a scheme straight out of public employee union official’s handbook, I’m sure he wasn’t thinking about a nation facing a depression, double-digit unemployment, the housing foreclosure crisis, billion dollar-a-day overseas wars or a struggling stock market in 2000. Of course, Nationwide Retirement Solutions, according to the corporation’s website, is endorsed by the International Association of Firefighters.

So what can be done, especially when the mainstream local newspapers and television stations employ union reporters, and one union doesn’t criticize another even when they’re in different sectors?

There are three initiatives that I would encourage voters to pass in all the unionized states, but particularly in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Californians are already taking the lead in this area.

First, election laws should be rewritten making it unlawful for any candidate for elected office to accept an endorsement, campaign contribution or volunteer assistance from employees whose labor agreements they will eventually negotiate and approve.

Second, labor laws should be re-written prohibiting public employee unions from negotiating wages and benefits, just like they do in Alabama, Mississippi and other southern states. To make this stick, laws would also have to be approved stripping arbitrators of the authority to decide wage and benefit provisions in collective bargaining agreements.

Third, laws that approved the “three and five year high” provisions should be repealed. Final wage, overtime, compensatory time and sick time calculations should be calculated on the dollar actually earned for the time period in which it was earned. If retired Chief Fong earned 100 hours of unused vacation time at $20 an hour 30 years ago she shouldn’t be paid $156 an hour for it 30 years later. I also think state laws should mandate that compensatory time be used within 12 months of the date it was earned or be forever lost. Taxpayers cannot afford extravagant budget busting pay-outs like those received by Fong and thousands of other public employees across the nation.

Since my experiences have taught me not to trust state legislators because they can rewrite laws that have been approved by the voters, state constitutional amendments would make these changes tamper-resistant. That gives only the voters the authority to make changes.

As many Americans are unemployed, under-employed, losing their homes and learning that many of their elected officials are greedy, incompetent and corrupt, I believe there is enough growing anger among the 92.1 percent worker majority to bring this public sector employee pension fund madness, especially among police and fire unions, under control at the ballot box. To be more politically correct – at the electronic voting machine.

Eric J. Brewer is the former mayor of the City of East Cleveland, Ohio and served from January 1, 2006 through December 31, 2009. He has also served as a Special Assistant to the Mayor of Cleveland, Chief of Staff to the Mayor of East Cleveland and Director of Communications for the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority. Mr. Brewer is a former niche market newspaper publisher, editor, journalist and radio talk show host, and served as a mayoral-appointee to a Financial Planning & Supervision Commission that oversaw the East Cleveland City School District after it was placed in fiscal emergency. Mr. Brewer can be contacted via email at ejon1953@gmail.com

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