Budget battles put government unions on the spot

GovLoop members ponder the attacks on government employee unions in cash-strapped states.

There was a Twisted Sister song that served as an anthem for rebellious teens and 20-somethings who grew up in the 1980s. Here's the refrain:

We’re not gonna take it
No, we ain’t gonna take it
We’re not gonna take it anymore

Those lyrics came to mind recently as political protests erupted from north Africa to the northern United States. Curious about the perception of government colleagues toward their counterparts in places like Wisconsin, I asked the GovLoop community: Do worker unions help or hurt government?

Pam Broviak, assistant director of public works for Geneva, Ill., framed the conversation.

“All the unions I have watched organize in local government were created because employees no longer wanted to be subject to the whims or lack of leadership of elected officials,” she wrote. “But I have seen examples that were both a benefit and a detriment to government. It's a benefit when it prevents professional, hardworking people from being fired for no good reason. It is always a bad thing when the union protects a poor-performing employee who was only hired by a past elected official as a favor to one of their friends.”

Brian Gryth, legal and technical support manager for Colorado, offered his firsthand perspective.

“I am a union member, and most of our activities are targeted at securing a good working life for our members,” he wrote. “As one of my managers once said about the union, you can either see the union as this external force or you can see it as people. At the end of the day, we are all colleagues and we are all working to the benefit of the people we serve.”

Speaking of the people we serve, Darryl Perkinson, a Navy superintendent, thinks the public ought to do some soul searching. "A discussion must occur among all Americans about the value of our expectations. What is our personal expectation concerning what we want local, state and federal governments to do for us?” he said.

Open-government initiatives can create those opportunities for citizens to tackle the tough decisions facing public officials. For instance, North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue (D) launched a Balance the Budget Challenge by inviting residents to grapple with the same data she reviews in allocating state resources.

John Evans, a North Carolinian and a specialist at the Internal Revenue Service, is confident that unions and public officials could constructively participate in a similar crowdsourcing process to avoid situations like the standoff in Wisconsin.

“Union members are well aware of the budget situation and, if asked and sincerely listened to, will likely have useful suggestions on how to reduce spending on nonessentials,” he wrote. “Bluster and bombast and announcing a conclusion in the media before even beginning to bargain in good faith, as seen in Wisconsin, won't work.”

So what does it take to bring reasonable people around a table for negotiations? I’d say it’s time to start standing on the table — or on government as a platform, as Tim O’Reilly describes Government 2.0. What if more governors and other senior officials used Web-based tools to enable employees to generate options, weigh their relative value and make hard choices together?

It sure beats people shoving each other around and shouting, “We’re not gonna take it,” doesn’t it?

About the Author

Andy Krzmarzick is the community manager for GovLoop, a social network for people in and around government.

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Reader comments

Mon, Mar 14, 2011

Unions, are important and have helped to grow our economic foundation. Working openly and in good faith on both sides of the equation is the only way for us to continue to grow and propser in this country. One sided unilateral grandstanding does nothing but make for trouble for all. We at the end of the day all have a vested interest in our communities and the businesses within; so before anyone side throws a stone, remember we are all in it together - and we all will loose together if we do not work and cooperate with one another. The Wisconsin approach is clearly the wrong approach.

Fri, Mar 11, 2011 Jim2 FL

The mere existence of a union in an organization puts a barrier up between the workers and management. No matter how many "teamwork" buzzwords are thrown around that barrier exists in the back of everyone's mind and will pop to the front with very little provocation. That makes it nearly impossible for a unionized activity to function as effectively as a non-union one. (Compare northern U.S. auto plants to those in the south.) I've been on both sides of a union. They have done great things for workers in the past, but I don't see them making a lot of contributions these days. While I won't go as far as saying they are obsolete, I do think their role should be limited, maybe just to worker safety.

Fri, Mar 11, 2011 Jim

A fair amount of items and clauses in many public-sector bargaining unit contracts have evolved from milestone events. A well-written contract also specifies rights and responsibilities for both management and labor. While it might be time to entertain discussions regarding benefits and budget, it doesn't seem value-added to completely eliminate unions and their respective contracts altoether. Maybe I'm missing somethign...

Fri, Mar 11, 2011 RayW

If it were not for the unions, the common working folk would be working in dangerous conditions with long hours and at fear for a layoff if they did not exactly follow the party line, no matter how stupid or demeaning.

If it were not for the unions, the US would still be in a position of eminence in the world of production. Unions have created a work force where the incompetent can be promoted because they manage to play the union card and survive. The unions have created an environment where work can not be done unless a certain group does it, no matter that there are 50 people standing around with their thumbs up their hind-ends. In some palaces unions have/had become so out of control that a union member could ask an engineer to hold a tool while he crawled out from under some equipment and then turn around and write him up for holding said tool. That happened to my co-worker in 1984 in California, we were both 'counseled' on union/'management' relations and the union member got his free time for that 'violation'.

We need unions, but not the "out of control, you must be a member, no one can do anything not defined" ones that we have now. Unfortunately, many unions have become a living entity that must continue to grow at all costs. This article appears to be assuming that unions are just groups of people and ignores the fact that the union is like the government (or big corporation), the top echelons will do anything to keep themselves in power and wealth.

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