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Unions’ dilemma on layoffs: to compromise or not?

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

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Where's the limit?

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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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