Unions’ dilemma on layoffs: to compromise or not?
The desire to save jobs has led to concessions – but there is a limit.
In Lynn, Mass., teachers saved more than 100 jobs by agreeing to work one unpaid day this year.Skip to next paragraph
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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?
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.
• 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.”