Our Costly Public Work Force

Unions must accept a role in cutting state government spending.

Public employee unions protested outside the Statehouse in Trenton in June 2011 while inside members of the Senate and Assembly hammered out an historic pension and benefits reform package for state workers.

It’s no secret that the cost of state government in New Jersey is out of control. There are many reasons for this. One that has gotten a lot of attention is the size and cost of our government work force.

It’s clear that our civil service laws and public-employee culture have produced an untenable situation. In an effort to rein in costs, Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, and Senate president Stephen Sweeney and Assembly speaker Sheila Oliver, both Democrats, joined forces last year to support a pension- and health-benefits-reform package for public employees.

But this doesn’t go far enough. The problem, according to former New Jersey labor commissioner Ray Bramucci, starts with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), which represents most of New Jersey’s public employees. Bramucci, a labor expert and a former official with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, says CWA leadership “has never viewed the government as their partner. They view the government as their enemy.” That, says Bramucci, is a traditional union stance. But when you represent public employees, he says, you have a “responsibility to understand that your [members’] well-being is tied to the well being of the taxpayers.” [Full disclosure: Bramucci is chair of the Caucus Educational Corporation, which produces the public broadcasting programs I host.]

Hetty Rosenstein, state director for the CWA, begs to differ. “The CWA doesn’t see government as the enemy,” she says. “We see them as incredibly important. The work we have done over the past 30 years has been in support of public services and our members.” For example, she points out, the CWA was a major proponent of reform at the Division of Youth and Family Services. “There would not have been DYFS reform if it weren’t for our union,” she contends.

No doubt that’s true, but what about fighting to reduce the cost of government and finding ways to reform civil service laws which, Bramucci argues, are archaic and provide an undue amount of protection for public workers?

Rosenstein doesn’t budge: “The CWA helped to craft an approach in terms of civil-service reform that allowed for collective bargaining in a whole host of areas, and it was vetoed by the governor.” Further, she argues, “We have a responsibility to provide the most cost-effective services that people need.”

Clearly, the CWA wants to present itself as a leader in government reform and budget cutting.

Unfortunately, it’s just not true. There are too many examples of unions, including the CWA, fighting efforts to find smarter, more cost-effective ways of doing business in state government.

I asked Bramucci why the high cost of government should be the CWA’s responsibility. His reply: “Unlike a business, which can pack up and leave, [or] resist demands and farm work out, government can’t do this. They can’t close down. They can’t contract out basic services like police or the health department.”

In fact, in the private sector, management and labor have come together to find solutions. Consider the auto industry where, according to Bramucci, the United Auto Workers acknowledged that productivity and quality were just as much their responsibility as management’s. If the unions were not going to be part of that solution, which included using robotics to do jobs workers had once done, American cars could not be competitive. 

Unfortunately, New Jersey’s public-employee union leaders don’t see the need to compromise to the same degree as the UAW. They are not inclined to reexamine the role they’ve played in contributing to the massive cost of state government.

If the CWA continues to dig in its heels, taxpayers will have to pick up the tab. We can only hope that there are enough politicians to stand up and say “enough.” The time has come for big changes in state government.

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