Unions’ dilemma on layoffs: to compromise or not?

The desire to save jobs has led to concessions – but there is a limit.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Los Angeles Unified School District teachers participated in a rally Tuesday to protest more than 8,800 impending layoffs.
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In Lynn, Mass., teachers saved more than 100 jobs by agreeing to work one unpaid day this year.

But in nearby Boston, the teachers union has so far rejected a proposal that all unionized city workers accept a wage freeze for next year or face large layoffs.

The faltering economy has put unions at a crossroads nationwide: How much should they compromise with cash-strapped cities, counties, and states trimming their wage bill?

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So far, unions have frequently shown a willingness to make concessions – realizing that their members are not immune from the crisis. But in many cases, they are balking at the stark terms being proposed. It points to a growing showdown between unions and employers, as each contests the other’s appraisal of the situation and the remedies that will be sufficient.

“We don’t have our heads in the sand. We know what’s going on,” says Gordon Pavy, director of collective bargaining for the AFL-CIO. “We benefit on the upside, and on the downside, we have to take our lumps like everyone else.”

Terms are negotiable

He says it is not unusual for unions to work with employers to find solutions that save jobs in times of recession, even if it means making major concessions on wages or taking unpaid furlough days. Still, city and state leaders seem to be taking their demand for concessions to the courts or to the media rather than negotiating in good faith, Mr. Pavy says.

For example:

• In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger implemented a mandatory policy of two furlough days a month policy for many state workers, which unions opposed. They sued to stop the program and lost, though they are appealing the decision. Governor Schwarzenegger also won a lawsuit that gives him the right to cut state workers’ wages to the federal minimum wage when lawmakers can’t pass a budget on time. In response, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000, which represents some 95,000 state workers, recently cut a deal with the state involving numerous concessions in the hope of avoiding layoffs or worse concessions.

• In Detroit, the mayor has asked unions to agree to a 10-percent pay cut or face major layoffs – a request local unions are balking at granting.

• In Oregon, the local SEIU chapter actually approached the governor with a list of concessions – including a wage freeze for two years and eight unpaid furlough days this year. The state has since determined those cuts won’t be enough, and is asking the union for more. Negotiations resumed this week.

“We thought, ‘We get it, the economy is bad,’ and we thought we’d do something to preempt it,” says Kermit Meling, a transportation worker who chairs the bargaining committee for SEIU Local 503. “We thought we were fairly close, and then we got blindsided by them coming back and wanting to take a lot more.”

Where's the limit?

How much unions are willing to give away can depend on their relations with the local government, where unions are in their contracts, and how real they believe the risk is of severe layoffs. Cutting teaching and police jobs right now can be politically difficult, for instance, no matter how dire the budget situation.

“Unions and union members tend to feel the same as anyone right now – that you’re lucky to have a job,” says Rebecca Given, a professor of collective bargaining at Cornell University’s Institute of Labor Relations. “On the other hand, there’s a lot of anxiety right now around pensions. They’re going to want to make sure that pensions remain untouched.”

Professor Given notes that there’s also a debate within many unions about what’s known as “selling out your unborn” – agreeing to a lesser salary and terms for any new employees.

That is one issue in Boston. Mayor Thomas Menino has reached a deal with one union, the Association of Federal, State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), to accept a wage freeze in exchange for a promise of no layoffs. But other unions – like the teachers and police – are willing to put the jobs of their least senior members at risk, say critics.

“There’s a history, at least in this state: The unions eat their young,” says Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a city watchdog agency. He says the wage freeze – which would expire before the end of the year – is necessary to keep the city solvent.

“The ones making decisions are the more senior teachers in unions, and they want to retain what in their minds are hard-fought wins in negotiations and not give anything up,” Mr. Tyler adds.

The local teachers’ union chafes at that characterization, insisting that they’re not averse to working with the city. But they want a more complete picture of how many layoffs would occur and how the situation would be affected by coming federal stimulus money.

In California, there is evidence that concessions can help. The deal offered by SEIU Local 1000, while including significant concessions, may leave the union’s members in a much better position than that of other state workers. Instead of taking two unpaid furlough days a month, its members are taking one, with more flexibility about when it occurs. The union also got a guarantee that layoffs will only occur if a department or office is entirely closed and there is no equivalent work nearby.

“We knew concessions would have to be made,” says Jim Zamora, a spokesperson for the union. “The most important thing is that people don’t want to lose their jobs.”

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