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County Executive Wrong to Blame Unions for Budget Problems

By Tracey A. Thompson
Published in the Tacoma News Tribune
December 2, 2010

To suggest, as Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy does in a recent Tacoma News Tribune article, Pierce County pay raises: They’re complicated, that unionized workers have drained County coffers and prospered in an economic recession is simply untrue.

Like working people in the rest of the country, Pierce County employees have been profoundly impacted by the economic downturn. They have either been laid off or threatened with layoff, they are struggling to pay the ever-increasing costs of health care, and they are working hard to pay their rent or keep up with their mortgage payments.

These workers – clerical workers, custodians, maintenance workers, counselors, and many others – constitute the bulk of unionize workers at the County.

The highest compensated County employees –attorneys, engineers, managers, Department heads and members of the County’s Executive Staff – are not represented by labor unions.

County Executive McCarthy understands this and could have frozen wages for high earners and other non-represented employees at Pierce County as her colleague to the north, Dow Constantine, did at King County. This move would have saved the County millions and prevented the layoff of 32 County employees.

It also would have set the tone for constructive dialogue between unions and County officials in contract negotiations. Instead, McCarthy handed herself and members of the County Council a 3% raise. The raise was given despite her rejection of a 1.5% wage increase for 911 dispatchers and record specialists at the Law Enforcement Support Agency, hourly workers who provide essential emergency services to Pierce County citizens.

McCarthy also granted salary increases to all non-represented employees, even those who are already at the top of the County pay scale. For her then to suggest that the Unions that negotiated increases for their members in good times are to blame for the County’s financial troubles is irresponsible. Nor can the possibility of unionization justify a failure to exercise financial restraint with respect to the salaries of highly-compensated employees.

Union members at Pierce County understand full well the impact of the financial crisis and are keenly aware of the sacrifices needed to assist the struggling County. In fact, when faced with the increasing cost of the Pierce County health plans, the Teamsters Union stepped up and presented a more cost-effective program provided significant savings to Pierce County in 2010.

This year Union members offered to discuss all aspects of the current labor agreements, including the possibility of forgoing cost-of-living increases, but the County refused. The County also refused to provide any assurance that it would suspend COLA increases for non-represented employees.

In an economic downturn, it is easy to blame working people for fiscal irresponsibility perpetrated by others. Let’s not forget who caused the financial meltdown. The actions of unscrupulous bankers and Wall Street racketeers emptied our municipal and county coffers – not unionized workers.

County workers make indispensable contributions to our communities. They are the men and women who treat our mentally ill, maintain our roads, clean up our parks, staff our libraries, provide safe drinking water, work to clean up and protect our environment, and keep our communities safe.

If the County is to return to stable financial footing, County officials and management must exhibit the kind of leadership that gives citizens and workers confidence that the pain is shared: They must start by demonstrating fiscal restraint with respect to their own compensation.

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