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Letter: Union endorsements and choosing their own boss

By Matthew Allen

To the Editor:

NORWALK, Conn. — Let me begin by saying that I have nothing but respect for our civil servants and the often thankless functions they perform on our behalf every day. I am also the son of a former Norwalk police officer so I do realize the sacrifices these workers make in doing what they do. Also, I have not made reference to either candidate for mayor because the points I am making here are specific to the issue and not outright supportive of either candidate.

It’s election season and time for the public-sector unions to make their endorsements. Press conferences, letters to the editor, comments by union leaders, rank and file members and retirees, have attacked the current administration for not exhibiting sufficient “respect” or “good faith” and for breaking promises. Perhaps it is time we consider the motivations behind these endorsements and comments because public-sector unions have an incredible amount of influence on elections. As a result, voters need to be concerned about why they choose to endorse one candidate or party over another.

This is not an anti-union diatribe and I am not seeking to debate the merits of union organizing or the benefits and protections that unions have helped bring to all workers. But not all unions are created equally. Although public- and private-sector unions share many similar traits, public-sector unions have an edge that their private-sector brethren could only hope to possess. Public-employee unions work to help elect the management team that will ostensibly sit across from them at the negotiating table.

As Victor Gotbaum, the leader of District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) said in 1975, “We have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss.” Through endorsements, political contributions and get out the vote efforts, public-sector unions can help turn the tide of an election. This is most noticeable when it comes to low-turnout elections at the local level; elections like the one the voters of Norwalk are facing this November.

The leverage carried by public-sector unions is significant. It forces managers at the state and local level to interact with their unions differently than managements in the corporate world. Despite the hue and cry by some public-sector workers, contract negotiations in the public sector are much less adversarial in nature than they are in the private sector. The unions may not feel that way; to them every negotiation may seem like a battle to the death. But it is nothing compared to what goes on in the private sector.

There is only so far a private company can be asked to go in order to meet union demands before it puts itself into an uncompetitive position in the marketplace. And being uncompetitive puts the company and all of its employees at risk. Management in a private company is also rewarded for improving profitability so they have much more of a personal interest. Not so in the public sector. The mayor doesn’t get a bonus if he keeps costs in check or taxes low. Maybe, just maybe, he gets to hold onto his job if everything else goes well. But then again, if he does too much to keep costs in check and taxes low, there is the very real chance he will come face to face with organized labor. Then the issue isn’t collective bargaining, but collective voting, collective political organizing. Politicians only need to get through the next election. What happens after they leave is someone else’s problem. That someone is the taxpayer.

I fully realize there is a need to differentiate between candidates. However, endorsements by our public-employee unions and the comments they make against the opposing candidate need to be looked upon with some degree of skepticism by voters. Recall, it wasn’t all that long ago when they sang a different tune. When unions publicly endorse a candidate or party, or when the calls for “fairness,” “respect” and “good faith” begin to be made, voters need to pay heed. Taxpayers need to pay heed. Perhaps respect and good faith are free, like a smile; then again, maybe they aren’t.

As taxpayers and voters we need to be a tad bit concerned when we are told by a union that a particular candidate would be better for all of us. In the end, no matter which candidate holds the job, the union’s leverage exists. It’s real and it will be there when the next election rolls around to help or to punish. There are consequences to not showing enough “respect, fairness and good faith.” As long as public-employee unions carry the influence they do in elections, no mayor is going to risk playing serious hardball come negotiation time. The difference will likely be at the margin, although it could wind up being a pretty wide margin. The question is: which margin would you prefer? If you think your taxes are too high now, then you have to ask yourself which direction taxes are likely to head under the union’s preferred candidate.

In the end, I want our city workers to be treated fairly and with respect, and our retirees need to be protected. I can’t say enough how much respect I have for the men and women who risk their lives on our behalf, educate our children, or do all the many things that make our city government operate. But I also want taxpayers to be treated fairly and with respect. Maybe the next time we hear one union or another endorse a candidate, of either party, we need to ask ourselves if that endorsement has our city’s best interests in mind. Because helping to elect your own boss is a weighty thing.

Matthew Allen

 

 

 

14 comments

Frank Peloso October 25, 2013 at 9:45 am

Mr. Allen, You fail to mention that private sector unions can apply pressure by going on strike. The law does not permit the firefighters and police to strike. And over 90% of arbitration awards go in favor of the cities and towns. The only recourse public sector unions have is to get involved politicly. And I might add, isn’t that the way our country is supposed to work.

Daisy October 25, 2013 at 10:43 am

At least half union members don’t live or vote in Norwalk, so don’t have an interest in ALL the services the city has to provide, they don’t care about their own benefits and paychecks. And Dick’s already given them everything they want, so they can go back now to their traditional Democratic base and support one of their brothers in arms, who hopefully WON’T get a chance to find out how different it is when you’re sitting behind that desk rather than running your mouth elsewhere.

M Allen October 25, 2013 at 3:37 pm

Mr. Peloso, you are correct. Private-sector unions can go on strike, one more reason why I stated that the relationship between unions and management in the private sector are more adversarial than they are in the public sector. Now if you’re making the claim that public-sector unions are at a disadvantage because they cannot go on strike, well, I would just simply disagree. They don’t need to strike. They already have an easier path than do private-secotr unions (see next paragraph).
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Regarding the statistic that 90% of arbitration awards go in favor of the cities and towns, I’ll take it at face value. While they may go in favor of the cities and towns, you’re talking about a negotiation system that is skewed in favor of the union from the beginning. Why? Because government management is weak. There are two parties in a negotiation: the management and the union. In the private sector, both have a personal interest in the outcome. Each side fights equally hard to share in the economic benefits the company produces. However, in the public sector, only the union has any real personal interest. Elected officials come and go. The union is forever. Only recently, given the financial pressure most state and local governments are under, have government managements begun taking a stronger stance on long-term contract benefits. But that is only because the taxpayer is starting to scream about his tax burden and that results in looking at the biggest line items in any budget: the employees. And what do they notice? Public employees with better retirement benefits and better increases than what they are getting in the private sector. So when you tell me that 90% go in favor of the city or town, I tell you that 100% are still more generous than what you would get in the private sector. And the reason is because the union is negotiating against a weak opponent.
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There is nothing stopping public-employee unions from engaging in electioneering (endorsing, contributing, campaigning, helping to get out the vote, etc.). It’s their right. Of course, the rest of society doesn’t have the right to pick their boss, but hey, it sucks for us. But its their right to do it. I just think taxpayers need to keep it in mind that there is an underlying agenda and that agenda costs taxpayer dollars to fulfill.

Frank Peloso October 25, 2013 at 5:11 pm

Me Allen
As a retiree I cannot negotiate, use the arbitration system or be represented by the current union. When I retired in 2004 I retired with a benefit package. My benefits are bound by the contract I retired under. Do you think it would be fair if the current administration changed your Dad’s or my benefits knowing the retiree has no way of representing himself.

M Allen October 25, 2013 at 8:16 pm

Mr. Peloso,
If you look back to your letter on this website, I commented a number of times. Although I did not agree with some of the grievances or details you listed, because many of those weren’t related to retirees as much as active duty members and some were a little bit incorrect. But, in those areas where you talked about the effects on retirees, I understand completely. In fact, my feelings towards how retirees are treated by both the city and the union run deep. But let me address the points you raise here, and in so doing, I’ll hit on some of the others I mentioned in comments on your letter.
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Benefits are bound to the contract you retired under: Unless your retirement contract stated something different than the one my father left under in 1987, the only thing fixed is your pay. Health benefits are based on the current union contract, not the contract in effect at the time you retired. If that were the case, every retiree would be operating under a unique health plan, different from other retirees and the active-duty members. My father’s health benefits changed every time the new contract changed. Then when he became eligible for Medicare, Medicare became primary and his city insurance acted as secondary. But between the two, my father paid very little in terms of out of pocket expenses. Where it caused an issue was prior to the time he became eligible for Medicare because if the new contract raised the out of pocket costs for health care, that was extra money out of his pocket. Meaning if the co-pay went up, he had to pay more. But after he reached Medicare age, the two plans worked together. Not a bad deal and way better than what the vast majority of private-sector workers could ever hope for.
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As a retiree you cannot negotiate, use arbitration, or be represented by the current union: correct, correct and false. First, as stated previously, your pay is fixed. That never changes. And while you cannot negotiate or use arbitration, you are absolutely entitled to representation by the union when it comes to the health care benefits. How? Because your health care benefits are at the mercy of what they negotiate with the city under the current contract. The question you and other retirees have to ask is: are you getting any representation from the union as a retiree? I will tell you that the answer is absofrickenlutely not. They aren’t negotiating with you in mind. They are negotiating for their own contract which is about more than just health benefits. So if they choose to take a higher wage increase in lieu of an increase in their health plan co-pay going from $20 to $25, well, you as a retiree are going to eat that. Even though they may have received a kick in pay, you sure didn’t because your benefit is fixed forever (not including COLA). But all retirees are technically covered by union representation. The union just doesn’t do a very good job of it.
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As for changes made by the current administration, they didn’t happen to my father, since he dies in 2006. But my mother, as his successor beneficiary has experienced changes to the health benefits since that point, if they changed under the newer contracts. You can blame that o the city or blame it on the union. I blame it on both since negotiations are two-way streets. But even before the current administration came into office, the health care benefits changed. If you have only been retired since 2004, you have only experienced the Moccia administration as a retiree. Perhaps one year of Knopp. But I can assure you that retirees have experienced changes in their benefits in the past.
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I’m going to toss in one little extra here just so you understand where I come from when I say you can’t just blame the city or this administration and you sometimes have to look to your own union when it comes to how retirees are treated. When my father left the force in 1987, he didn’t retire under the standard retirement plan. He retired under a status known as Veteran’s Reserve and was granted benefits under the Heart & Hypertension Act (CGS Sec 7-433c). This was phased out for new hires after June 1996. I’m not sure if you are familiar with that state statue, but it basically stated that if a police officer or firefighter (the only two professions covered) joined the ranks without the disease and developed hypertension or heart disease while employed, it was determined to be job-related and in the nature of a workmen’s compensation award, and thus not taxable. Basically it was meant to be that if you didn’t have it before joining but developed at after, it was related to the stress of the job. Well guess what? After being awarded a 50% benefit and collecting it for a bit of time, the Internal Revenue Service came down on recipients like a ton of bricks saying it was taxable because it did not require proof the disability was specifically job-related. Never mind the fact he had been hospitalized for a lightning strike while on the job during his career. This went on for some time and affected many officers and firefighters in Connecticut and other states. He was forced to pay fines and back taxes and appeal those. He went to the city for help. Nothing. He went to the union. Nothing. Both parties had negotiated the language in the contract but both were unwilling to support him and the many other retirees or spouses if he retiree were now deceased. Yep, the IRS went after widows. He fought it on his own, out of pocket, and won. But again, little to no help from those involved with negotiating it or awarding it.
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So there you have it. You should get support from your union after you retire. But you won’t. You are as much an afterthought to them as to the city. So please understand why I get my back up when I hear retirees blame this administration and say a change is needed. It isn’t just this administration, it isn’t just the city. The union has some blame in what happens to retirees after the walk out those doors and stop paying dues.

The Deal October 25, 2013 at 10:36 pm

First to Daisy; If you have factual numbers to support your statement “at least half union members don’t live or vote in Norwalk” could you please let us know what they are. Can you also provide documentation showing “Dick” has given employees “everything they want”. That would be awesome. Matt, as the son of a former police officer haven’t you as his child benefitted from contracts your dad fought for and worked under that sitting mayors and council members approved? Did the union leadership he belonged to endorse particular candidates? Did he, and even you, expect the retirement benefits he received would remain intact throughout the remainder of his life? Do you think he earned that to be so? I don’t recall any union stating a particular candidate would be better for all of us as you stated. Could you please tell us which union said that? You’re selling the taxpayer/voter short by suggesting any unions endorsement is who Joe Citizen needs to vote for. I get the facts, I see what’s going on, or not going on, and I make my choice. Regardless of the candidate any union endorses for any office every voter chooses for themselves, I hope, who they’d like to represent them and if it doesn’t go the way they’d hoped then they have the right to choose again. Democracy.

M Allen October 26, 2013 at 3:07 am

@The Deal – I suppose I benefited (at the time) from my father having his job, paycheck and health benefits as any child would from their parent’s employment. Yes, he was covered by the union contract. Yes, the union endorsed particular candidates. Did he expect his retirement benefits to remain intact throughout? Pay, yes. Health care, no. He knew that could change since it was tied to the current contract, although it couldn’t be eliminated altogether since health care coverage itself was guaranteed; but not what form that would take. Did he earn it? He earned was what his contract said he earned. He didn’t earn a special right outside of the terms of his retirement agreement.
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Now, onto the politics side of your comments. You are referring to this line of my letter to the editor: “As taxpayers and voters we need to be a tad bit concerned when we are told by a union that a particular candidate would be better for all of us.” I’ll answer your question specifically by saying no, most don’t come right out and say “The candidate would be good for all of us.” I could cite an example from the recent Police union endorsement from Det. David Orr that could fit that wording, but a specific quote referring to “all of us”, or in his words “all of the citizens”, isn’t the point. The spirit of the assertion I made is related to the public nature of an endorsement, typically during a press conference or through an official press release. If the intention were to communicate to the candidate that they have, as an organized group, decided to support him/her they could have done it in private. But they don’t. They call a press conference or issue a press release to the local media and alert general public to the fact that they are supporting the candidate and their reasons for doing so, often with glowing remarks about the candidate and what a good {insert position here} they would be. In so doing, they are communicating a message to the public that the candidate is the preferred option of the union and has received it’s stamp of approval over the opposition. Endorsements are intended to influence the audience.
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Am I really selling the taxpayer/voter short? Nah, I don’t think so. I think we have a long and storied history of voters who aren’t entirely informed about who they vote for or what influences they allow to help them make that judgment (my awful piece of handiwork included). To say nothing because one assumes all voters already know and understand is to miss educating or reminding those that don’t or who have forgotten. That is also Democracy, is it not?
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And thank you for your questions and comments. I know the piece is controversial, but I appreciate the respectful give and take. Its refreshing.

Frank Peloso October 26, 2013 at 9:15 am

Mr Allen

I am so sorry to hear about your Dad’s passing. I am almost certain that I new him.
The reason I think Harry Rilling will be a great mayor is that he runs as a unique candidate. He was a police officer, a union president and a police chief. He knows first hand the issue that retirees and their dependents can ill afford to lose any of their medical benefits at a time they will need them the most. I never had an issue with this mayor until we were told by someone in the personnel office that all retirees were going to be forced into the new medical plan that the current firefighter union negotiated. This was changed, only after our protest, and was made optional. We were also told that this would only be the case until the next contract is negotiated. As you know, retirees have no representation. Unions cannot negotiate for past retirees. Our only option is to get involved politicly. I know Harry Rilling for forty years. He will be fair and make adjustments to protect the rights of retirees but he will not give away the store. As I said in a previous letter, he has a passion for whatever he does. He will do what is in the best interest for all the people of Norwalk and still treat the people who severed the city fairly.

M Allen October 26, 2013 at 11:41 am

Mr. Peloso, despite my obvious inclination to vote in opposition to Chief Rilling, I still hold respect for the man and his years as chief. So please don’t get me wrong when I raise some of the issues I do. I won’t stand here and tell you that I disagree that the Chief won’t do what he believes is in the best interest of the city. I think most if not all of our elected officials, including Mayor Moccia, do what they think is in the best interests of the city. But politics is about disagreeing on what constitutes the city’s best interests.
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I just worry that, in your particular case, you seem pretty certain that one mayor can or will be different when it comes to protecting the “rights” of retirees. There shouldn’t be a difference because contracts are contracts and the union has an obligation on your behalf. I obviously don’t have insight into the contracts for firefighters and perhaps they were very different from those of the police. Perhaps retired firefighter health benefits had never been changed in the past the way they were for retired police officers. But for retired officers, it happened before Moccia and I expect it will happen after Moccia. But I would really love to hear Lefty Petrides, the current head of Norwalk’s fire union, or any union leader here in Norwalk, say the words: we are barred from representing our retirees during negotiations. Because if that is the case, then something needs to be done. Lack of representation for retirees is fundamentally unfair if they are going to be held to changes in the current contract between the unions and the city, under any mayor.
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Good luck with your fight. I know it can be difficult when it seems neither side is really there to help.

M Allen October 26, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Mr. Peloso, I am going to retract something here and do so publicly. In effect, the union can NOT officially represent you as a retiree since you are no longer an employee. This is settled case law stemming from a US Supreme Court decision in Allied Chemical v. Pittsburgh Plate Glass, 404 US 157 (1971).
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Although case law is murky and has yield different decision from one district to another, it seems that the union can help with enforcing elements of the CBA related to promises made to the union that affect retirees. However, if retiree health benefits are not EXPLICITLY made part of the CBA, then the union has no standing. I just don’t know where retiree health benefits fall with regard to the CBA.
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In the end, it is a very difficult position retirees are in. They are in a sort of limbo. What makes matters worse is that although the retiree may be familiar with the contract they retired with and even subsequent changes that affect their benefits, should they die, most spouses have no idea what is going on. While retirees are at a distinct disadvantage, spouses are even more so.

Frank Peloso October 28, 2013 at 12:55 pm

Matt
Addressing what you stated about being certain which mayor will protect the rights of the retirees, a sitting mayor has a history or record. A mayoral candidate does not. The one sure thing we can reference is the record of the sitting mayor. And in this case he has come after retirees benefits by raising the copays and trying to move all retirees into a medical plan that is not designed in the best interest of retired people. In Harry Rillings case he has said that he will be fair to the retirees and their families. As I said before, I have an advantage when it comes to knowing where he stands and who he is. I have known him for 40 years. We have discussed this and other issues many times. I have a real good sense of where he stands. I also know that he has been a successful chief for many years, and will be a very successful mayor which will benefit not just the current and past employees of Norwalk but all of citizens.

Piberman October 28, 2013 at 3:09 pm

Mr Allen could strengthen his argument by noting the benefits union support brought to the Governor’s campaign and how CT taxpayers benefited from the largest tax increase in history to protect state union jobs. And he could similarly use our experience with union dominated finance and governance in CT’s “welfare cities”. Let’s encourage all Norwalk City employees to actively engage in politics to elect candidates to bring home their bacon. The rest of us can put up “for sale” signs. Or move to the surrounding towns where municipal workers just do their job and earn the respect of their towns. Let’s move Norwalk forward – support the unions and their candidates. We’re just taxpayers.

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