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Step Up Defense of Our Public Workers

May 17, 2010

Container Ship

Every year, dozens of IBEW units representing public workers go to the bargaining table. And, lately, nearly every round of talks opens with municipal, state and federal employers demanding concessions to make up for budget deficits.

When unions ask government managers for more information to justify givebacks, or dispute the need for them, they are often faced with public relations campaigns to convince taxpayers that they are acting against the public interest. The right-wing media is helping out—a recent story by columnist Fred Barnes calls public workers “the new fat cats.”

That’s just what happened in Galloway Township, N.J., after leaders of Atlantic City Local 210—representing supervisory and blue collar workers—were notified that the municipality wanted workers to give up their 3,5 percent pay raise for 2010, contribute 2.5 percent of their pay to defray the cost of medical benefits and impose 20 furlough days.

The local, one of four unions in the township, had just taken the lead in 2009, agreeing to 3.5 furlough days under the threat of seeing bargaining unit members put on the street, and now their employer was looking for even more cuts in 2010.

Local 210 Business Manager Charles Hill says, “Our guys took a beating from the other unions for agreeing to concessions in 2009, so we told the town manager that IBEW would seriously consider their request after the three other unions declared their intentions.”

The mayor and majority on the town council, who are not worker-friendly, spread the word that the IBEW was being unreasonable and “greedy.” As a result, the municipal complex has been closed every Monday since and will be through the end of the year, thereby creating forced furlough days for the members.

Galloway Township’s aggressive posture mirrors anti-worker actions by Gov. Chris Christie, supported by the state’s legislature that has been mostly progressive on labor issues.

A new pension reform measure calls for workers in all municipalities to begin contributions of at least 1.5 percent of their salaries into retiree health care, starting June 1.  Local 210 is in the process of joining a coalition filing a suit challenging that mandate on grounds that it undermines the rights of unions to engage in collective bargaining.

In a posting on the AFL-CIO’s blog, Jeff Crosby, president of the Boston-area’s North Shore Central Labor Council, makes the case for challenging misconceptions and stereotypes perpetuated about public workers. Public sector workers, says Crosby, are trying to hold onto pensions and health care benefits that often have been slashed in the private sector. Says Crosby:

Either we change the public perception of government—equating the public sector with the public good with each word we speak—or we lose public jobs and services.  And that hurts us all.

Read Crosby’s proposals for challenging and defeating unfair, anti-labor attacks on organized public workers.