Even in our 24/7, blog-and-Twitter media world, commentators can barely seem to keep up with the worsening economic conditions. Before the ink was dry on the recent federal stimulus package, experts agreed that another will be necessary. Massachusetts's leaders have revised the state's tax-revenue projections downward, and downward again, and then down even further. Total personal wealth in America has plummeted from $55 trillion to under $40 trillion. Warren Buffett, perhaps the most respected private-sector investor, warns that the nation has fallen over an economic precipice, and faces as many as five years of economic turmoil and dislocation. The World Bank says the global economy will shrink in 2009 — for the first time since World War II.
The only people who seem oblivious to the scope of the problem are the do-nothing right-wing Republicans in Washington — and the greedy, stubborn municipal employees' unions of Boston.
Amazingly, they are not only rejecting Mayor Tom Menino's call for modest sacrifice — a one-year wage freeze — they are refusing to acknowledge that the city even faces a budget gap.
Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers' Union, has suggested that the city's projected $130 million shortfall is a figment of Mayor Tom Menino's imagination, or that federal stimulus money might somehow erase that deficit.
That is fantasy. More likely, the budget gap will widen, rather than close.
Stutman's union, along with those covering Boston's firefighters and police patrolmen, make up the bulk of the city's 19,000 unionized employees — and all three appear uninterested in agreeing to the wage freeze by Menino's deadline of March 15. (Menino must submit his budget to the City Council on April 8.)
When Menino announced his wage-freeze proposal in his State of the City speech, he seemed to genuinely believe that those unions would welcome a small, temporary financial hit, rather than face hundreds of layoffs.
He clearly misjudged the city's entrenched municipal unions. They are dominated by old-timers, who are unwilling to give up a few dollars from their own paychecks — especially if that might, God forbid, affect their pension calculation. Apparently they are more than willing to sacrifice their less-experienced brethren, who will be the ones getting the axe. (Offering buyouts to older workers, as the city has done in the past, is untenable now, as it would place too great a burden on the pension system.)
With the unions digging in their heels, the layoffs appear inevitable. So much for the notion of shared sacrifice in tough times. The rookie teachers, police cadets, and others will be thrown to the curb by the hundreds, along with their families — and they will leave the city with larger class sizes, more dangerous streets, and fewer services.
To be sure, the unions have developed a distrust of Menino over years of tense, even hostile, contract negotiations. But there is no reason to think that the mayor is overstating the economic realities this time.
There is no Plan B in Menino's drawer to increase revenue. The state legislature is in no mood to raise taxes on already suffering residents, as they have just shown in rejecting Governor Deval Patrick's "sweets and sodas" tax plan. Payments in lieu of taxes from non-profits — another avenue blithely suggested by Stutman — are not going to change anytime soon.
Revenues are not coming, so costs must be cut — it really is that simple.
So, if the unions are unwilling to accept Menino's wage freeze, they should be offering other solutions — other legitimate ideas for cost savings within the departments employing their members.
They are not.
The teachers' union has taken no stand on changing the school system's busing system, for example, which could save the city millions of dollars. The firefighters' union has offered no ideas for reducing the massive administrative mess within the Boston Fire Department. The patrolmen's union has no plan for temporarily reducing police overtime costs.
Just this week, the Globe revealed that the city pays out $12 million a year in "longevity pay" — guaranteed annual bonuses that kick in after a certain number of years on the job, on top of raises, and not contingent on job performance. Don't hold your breath waiting for the unions to forego that for a year.
No, the city's municipal unions are offering no plan, no compromise, no ideas. We understand that the unions wish to fight for their own interests. But at this rate, their typical intransigent self-interest only serves to exacerbate the fiscal pain for Boston's other citizens.
A bad idea
Sometime this spring — probably in late April or early May — the US Senate may vote on something called the Employee Free Choice Act. That measure seeks to replace the current method of unionization by a secret ballot of workers with a system that would allow certification by what in effect a card check system.
After eight years of the disastrous economic policies of the Bush administration, which intensified the trends that concentrated wealth and wellbeing among the nation's most affluent, the idea has an emotional appeal that it previously lacked.