Public employees may lose power as antitax mood grows

It was management, not labor, that went on strike in Boston last weekend -- and it could be a sign of the times. The shutdown Friday night of the city's mass transit system -- and the settlement that started the trains running again a day later -- grew from a legislative scuffle over who should fund a budget deficit.

It marked a change of fortune for the Boston Carmen's Union. And it illustrated what could be a new trend for unions of workers paid through taxes: being on the defensive.

Management in this case was the Massachusetts Legislature. When the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) ran out of money earlier this month, it went to the State House for help in providing a deficiency budget of $ 41 million.

The state lawmakers, sensitive to the non-nonsense message voters sent them in passing a tax-slashing initiative on Nov. 4, exacted cutbacks in return: reductions in train and bus runs and in the power of the Carmen's Union.

"The MBTA situation is making a lot of local unions nervous," says Prof. Thomas Kochan of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management. The reason, he says, is that when local government goes to the state for money, "the state wants a quid pro quo,"m usually cuts in local services.

But what the MBTA crisis -- which nearly left more than 250,000 daily riders in the lurch -- really illustrates, according to Mr. Kochan, is the past failure of management to hold its own public employee unions at the bargaining table.

"Now we're paying the costs of early negotiations," he says. "Whenever either side is dominant, there is going to be trouble. Unions won't restrain their own power."

But public employee unions now are on the defensive. While their size and power outshined the rest of the labor movement in recent years, public opinion began souring toward them as early as 1976, according to Kochan. Both politicians and the public have put up increasing resistance, he says, to public employee demands.

In the case of the MBTA, the legislature took away Carmen's Union control of overtime, part-time hiring, pension rights, and other aspects of personnel management and gave it to the transit system's board of directors and advisory board of community representatives.

The union, which had gathered those unusual rights to itself through its influence at the State House, says it will go to court to try to regain prerogatives which have made its members the highest-paid transit workers in the US.

Behind the incipient trend of toughness in relations with public employees unions are inflation and the voter revolt against ever more burdensome taxes.

When government revenues drop, "the first bite comes from personnel," says Girard P. Clark, political action director for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). and the future of government revenues is hanging in an uncertain balance.

Although of 12 tax-cutting measures on state ballots Nov. 4, only the one in Massachusetts passed, the forecast is fiscally conservative -- on Capitol Hill, in most state capitals, and at city and town halls.

Mr. Clark points out that Democratic losses to fiscally conservative Republicans in congressional contests No. 4 do not bode well for public employees and their unions. With a conservative administration in the White House, a Republican majority in control of the Senate, and a considerably more conservative House, he sees less federal money filtering to municipalities to be used in meeting the pay and benefits demands of public employee unions.

For example, Clark susepcts that federal revenue sharing funds will not go directly to municipal governments, but will be sent as block grants to the states. In turn the cities and towns would have to meet state government's terms in order to get a share of the federal aid package.

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