Seeing Union Negotiations in the Broader Picture
Granted, I don’t have his business experience, but sometimes news reports give the impression that Governor Carcieri doesn’t have a feel for the push-and-shove momentum with which one must grapple when bringing painful, but necessary, change:
“We’re going to do our best efforts to negotiate and discuss this in good faith and get a resolution,” the governor’s chief legal counsel, Kernan F. King, said outside the courthouse. “And the chief justice is going to be watching carefully over this process. [He] has encouraged both sides to get together and to get a deal for the benefit of the people of Rhode Island.”
But Carcieri released a statement later in the day suggesting that he would not bend in offering labor unions a deal other than what Council 94 members and a handful of smaller unions rejected last month. …
That deal “represents the very best financial offer the state can afford in this economic climate,” Carcieri said. “While I am hopeful this expedited process will result in a ratified agreement, I continue to have an obligation to balance the budget. The longer we are without an agreement with Council 94 and the other unions, the only options I have to recoup the cost savings are more severe and impactful to employees than the co-share changes. Time is running out. I cannot delay much longer.”
Inasmuch as the new contract sets forth a decrease in their members’ largess, the unions have only to gain via continued “talking” and “negotiations,” and the members are still existing with their currently ample deals. Indeed, Council 94’s lead attorney, Gerard Cobleigh, admits, “We’re where we want to be.” As long as the governor’s threats remain just that, the union has no reason to settle and considers itself to hold an ace:
“You have to understand though that the state workforce is down to a level now that there aren’t enough people to do half the jobs that are out there,” Cobleigh said. “So layoffs aren’t really practical.”
The governor’s response should be to highlight his belief (I hope it’s his belief) that there are too many jobs to be done in Rhode Island government, anyway. Go ahead, governor, bring this to a head, because all of this quibbling over $10 million looks foolish when anybody who’s paying attention knows that to be a mere fraction of the midyear shortfall scheduled for announcement in a few months. (My money’s still on $150 million.)
For all we can know, the governor has incorporated that pending change of circumstances in his current strategy for handling the unions. (E.g., “I was trying to be fair with the employees, but as the newly released numbers show, what we were trying to do was still not enough.”) The union, by contrast, surely sees the successful completion of another election cycle as a milestone giving it running room to flex its muscles and push for tax increases.
What the system needs — what the union members apparently require — is a straightforward illustration of action and consequence, so that when the new numbers come to light and further reductions are necessary, government employees will have already seen that a failure to compromise sufficiently will result in some of them losing their jobs and everybody else having to work in a more harried environment with inadequate help.