Friday, September 18, 2009

Caveat Lectores on the Public Sector Mess

There is something roiling in my gut that needs purging. I feel a RANT coming on.

In our law office, we briefly review about 50-100 news article per day concerning public employees. We do so to get a feel for what is happening in this state as well as nationally. We see trends that usually start in one place and wash over the landscape, often like a summer storm; but sometime like a tsunami. Other times the trends just appear all over at once. What I see is happening all at once all over this country. No one is safe from harm.

All public employees, general, fire and police, teachers and anyone else on the public’s payroll, have been targeted for bringing into the same bottomless pit that so many private employees already inhabit. Whether you can avoid this ill-fated doom is largely up to you.

Here is some really unpleasant news for those of you in Florida and elsewhere. You and your members are experiencing the Perfect Storm of your entire professional lives. Many of you are in denial, but that will not save you. Your lawyer cannot save you nor will anyone who was your “friend” before the life raft began to sink.

At the same time the Florida legislature and the public decided they needed to stage a contrived tax revolt, the national economy tripped into the toilet and somebody flushed it. Either one of these situations was a catastrophe. Both together may signal a public sector employment benefit Armageddon. Florida is not the only state to fall into the toilet. The same problems exist in one form or another in every state. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. THIS IS THE REAL THING.

Disasters can be sometimes avoided and always managed to some extent, but I do not see the local unions making the proper preparation for managing the huge wave about to wash over public sector employees. I see a lot of denial and huffing and puffing as if that would help. What is needed is some sound leadership based on knowing what to do and how to do it. Some pundits say leadership starts from the top down. I say it takes leadership from the bottom and top to get the leadership in gear to do what is needed. All hands need to see the problem, understand the problem and set out to weather the storm together.

Factoid #1: State and local government is in financial trouble. They cannot print money.
Factoid #2: State and local government will overstate how much they are in trouble to save a little for the next round of funding cuts.
Factoid #3 Private sector employees will not support you as you seek to save your pay and benefits. They have had it bad for a long time and many hold you in scornful contempt.
Factoid #4 Politicians will not risk losing their positions to save you.
Factoid #5 Legal systems will not prevent what economic reality will present.
Factoid #6 Government does not exist to employ you but to provide service to the public.
Factoid #7 Conservative antigovernment radicals and the right wing media have convinced much of the public that government is superfluous and a waste of money.

What I am talking about is that public sector employees and their union leaders must look at reality with clear heads and prepare to mitigate the damage rather that exacerbating it.

The news media, adversarial management and unfriendly politicians are and will continue to demonize those union leaders and their members who will not work with management to minimize the damage caused by this Perfect Storm some call recession that may become a depression. They will turn the public against you. Once that has been accomplished, you have lost your only source of power. If you are not careful, you will see your former friends walk on the other side of the street as you pass by. Wake up and smell the sickening odor of rancid public opinion before it overcomes you. Share the smell with your members so they can sense the pain before it becomes a layoff or reduction in benefits.

Employers are looking for give backs from the employees. And if they cannot get the employees to give back, they will take back either now or later. Under the present circumstances, you can only delay the inevitable and try to minimize the negative effect it will have on the members and the public. Now is not the time to stand stiff in a gale force wind that will blow you over.

All public comment over any suggestion that the union may need to consider renegotiating should be made to seem as conciliatory as possible. Let your lawyer advise you on whether to file a ULP or grievance. Labor lost a big ULP case recently that harmed the potential for litigating successfully.

Long before the give back request occurs, you should have been prioritizing how to deal with the request. Your pension is at the top of the list of things to protect, right along with your job. Losing either may become permanent. Foregoing a raise is nothing if you do not have a job. Less overtime means nothing if you do not have a job. Really, it is that bad in some departments.

There is no strategic advantage derived from letting the news media and the public decide you are a greedy bunch of fat cats who do not care about the poor tax payers who are out of work or underemployed while you feed at the public trough. Once that happens you are F**KED. You can lose, in one brief encounter with the news media, what it took years to develop. They will crucify you and turn your fair-weather political friends into enemies.

Now is the time to ratchet up the public relations machine to full tilt boogie. The public, news media and politicians need to see the faces of those they will harm. If your members are too busy now for PR, they will have plenty of time after the layoff.
Make good political action decisions. Now is not the time to screw up.

Make lobbying a full time job for as many people as possible. Do it well and do it often or expect to fail.

Do not become militant. Your ammo belt is empty. You will be shooting blanks but with the gun pointed back at you; so do not pull the trigger.

Do not encourage others to become militant. The harsh glare of public opinion cast upon them will harm you.

Educate your members so they will understand what is going on. Their span of understanding will frequently be more limited than yours. (That is a nice way of saying that many have “head up the ass syndrome.”) I see lots of denial going on in my line of work.

Do not count of the internationals, state associations or anyone else to do your job locally. It is your job to do what it takes at home. They can only provide support.

My personal advice is to buckle up the five point harness and get ready for the ride of your union leader career or resign now before you blindly lead your members into despair for which they will never forgive you. I will repeat what was once spoken to me as we thought we were headed for disaster. “We may be headed over the cliff, but at least we are in the locomotive. We have the best seat on the train.” The next few months even years are going to provide some adrenaline rushes for those who stay for the train ride. When I was a firefighter, we used to call it “going to see the Genie” when we entered a fully involved fire. For those of you who have never met the Genie, it can be fun if you know what you are doing or terror if you do not.

and Oh yes, have a nice day.

*Any rant from Caveat Lectores may contain minor error in detail but not in the general idea. It’s a rant not a calmly written research paper.

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