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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