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Flashpoint

April 5, 2014

Flashpoint: How to deal with a public-employee union

TERRE HAUTE — An open letter to Indiana city councils:

The problem: A public-employee union has no check, no market mechanism, to temper its power. The solution: You, the councilman.

A free market theoretically provides a check on private-sector unions except that government so often steps in to establish special rules. Couple that with a general body of law biased toward union labor and we face a situation where public-employee unions (PEUs) can and will lead local and state governments and their taxpayers to ruin — think San Bernardino, Harrisburg, Detroit, Illinois.

But again, you can change that. The check on PEU excesses is the councilman, a principled representative of the taxpayer and all private citizens. You, legally and practically, are our only effective protection.

That said, I would recommend as a tactical matter not confronting the local unions directly by questioning their legitimacy, existence or certification. That sets up a scenario of you versus them, management versus employee, and that is the unions’ game.

Approach the issue from your constituents’ point of view. Indeed, it is your job to represent them in the purchase of local government services.

You must assess the purchase of that service the same way you assess the purchase of an item or service you make for yourself. That means the seller, the union or its administrative sponsor, must justify the price, make clear what will be done and detail every other aspect of the potential transaction.

In the private sector, if you, the buyer, object to some part of a transaction, you would tell the seller “no.” The same is true even when the seller is a municipal government or a public-employee union.

These sellers must meet your standard, and they should be willing to move heaven and earth to do so. It is not unreasonable to expect them to prove the value of what they are selling. And as a councilman, the buyer, it is your responsibility to continuously, tirelessly, persistently demand that the seller prove this value — every single time — or there is no sale. In the context of municipal government, this may mean a lot of “no” votes.

On the other hand, if a PEU wants your “yes” vote, it should be prepared to prove its costs. In addition, you, on behalf of your constituency, can reasonably demand that a union justify why it is engaging in functions that can be provided or are being providing by taxpaying individuals or companies in the private sector.

That means you can demand that the union provide a comparison of its cost with those of a private provider. You can demand the costs be put to a market test by open and transparent bidding. You can demand that any compensation be based on objective, verifiable and understandable standards.

The list of such buyer demands can be endless. It is essentially the same one that you go through, spoken or unspoken, whenever you buy anything for yourself — from a hamburger to a new house.

And keep in mind the true nature of taxation and the ultimate penalty that awaits any citizen who doesn’t pay up. Your constituents can’t say “no” to the sales your council negotiates. Only you can do that.

If you can summon the courage, you will be surprised how effective you can be in this regard. My experience is that public-sector unions have little desire to compete. That is unfortunate because they would be better for it.

They’re on a gravy train and they like it — good for them but not so good for those paying for the ride. But if you can force a market test, i.e., competition and accountability in meeting high standards in return for fully justified compensation, you will begin a process of real change.

In any case, representing your constituents by protecting their purchases of public services is in accordance with every elected Hoosier’s oath of office. Nobody — mayor, unionist or citizen — can expect more of you than that.

Ryan Cummins, a longtime local business owner, is a former member the Terre Haute City Council.

 

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