Bloomberg: Union Ties Need Work

Weighing in on the national debate over the role of unions, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is toeing the line, saying he wants to see labor costs for public-sector employees decline, but doesn’t want that to come at the expense of the continued existence of organized labor.

Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio seeking to weaken unions’ power are only “half right,” Bloomberg wrote in a New York Times op-ed published Monday, in which he argues that union rights must be preserved as governments look for ways to reduce their budget deficits.

“In a growing number of states, budget deficits are being used to justify efforts to scale back not only labor costs, but labor rights,” he said. “The impulse is understandable; public sector unions all too often stand in the way of reform. But unions also play a vital role in protecting against abuses in the workplace, and in my experience they are integral to training, deploying and managing a professional work force.”

States and other municipalities, Bloomberg said, must find ways to cut the taxpayer-funded “pensions, benefits and job security protections for public workers that almost no one in the private sector enjoys” because “[t]axpayers simply cannot afford to continue paying these costs, which are growing at rates far outpacing inflation.”

While “public sector workers need a secure retirement” and “taxpayers need top-quality police officers, teachers and firefighters,” he said, “[i]t’s the job of government to balance those competing needs. But for a variety of reasons, the scale has been increasingly tipping away from taxpayers.”

Bloomberg, an independent, has distanced himself from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans by stressing the need for unions and by calling for more – not fewer – areas in which governments can negotiate with them.

In New York City, Bloomberg said, part of tipping the scale back when it comes to teachers means getting the state to pass a law giving the city the power to collectively bargain with the city teachers’ union on pensions and tenure. Earlier this month, Bloomberg called for the revision of state labor laws that he said have blocked the city from doing what’s best for its taxpayers. “The time has also come to return to the city the ability to negotiate pensions as part of collective bargaining, just as we do with wages and benefits,” he said at the time. “The public says ‘spend less.’ But Albany forces us to ‘spend more.’”

“To the extent that collective bargaining agreements or state laws are no longer serving the public, we should change them,” he said. “That is what democracy is all about — and that is our responsibility. The job of labor leaders is to get the best deal for their members. The job of elected officials is to get the best deal for all citizens.”

He added: “Rather than declare war on unions, we should demand a new deal with them — one that reflects today’s economic realities and workplace conditions, not those of a century ago. If we fail to do that, the fault is not in our unions, or in our stars, but in ourselves.”

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