The recent election of a new president of the Harford County Education Association, the local teachers' union, has the potential to be something of a turning point in the discussion of important matters of compensation for public employees.
For many years, much of the public discussion of pay for public sector employees has been centered around one of two extreme and largely unfounded notions. On one extreme is the assertion that government employees are overpaid, under worked and largely unnecessary. On the other extreme is the notion that certain government jobs — teachers, police and the like — are so important that people who hold them must be paid at a high rate and also receive substantial benefits.
The reality of government is that it does what we want it to do. Government regulations exist because somewhere in the past, a bunch of people got together and said, "There ought to be a law..." or "Someone ought to do something ..."
Enforcing those laws and making sure those vital somethings like trash collection and pothole filling get done takes people, and those people work for the government.
Where the election of a new teachers' union president fits into all this is how the election came to be held this year. The previous HCEA president left the post early in the aftermath of an ugly fight with the county government over pay. In short, the county offered no pay raises to teachers (or most other public employees). It then ended up with a surplus, which was used to give those same employees, teachers included, a bonus. The teachers' union under the previous president, demanded more, but lost that fight.
A key reason the teachers union's effort to demand raises failed is because it's hard to get the general public to support raises for teachers when most people in other jobs aren't getting raises and, indeed, are just happy to have jobs. Few people will argue that teachers are among our most valued public employees, but demanding more when everyone else is getting by on less is a hard sell to the public.
In addition, the relatively small issues relating to the Harford County dispute belie a much greater issue: that of pay and benefits for public sector employees. Even as the Harford County teachers union vs. county government showdown was taking place, there was a more high profile battle in Wisconsin pitting public sector unions against a governor bent on reducing the pay and benefits paid to public sector union members.
Which brings us back to the flawed extreme notions of the rich and lazy government employee vs. the suffering, underpaid public servant.
The issue of controlling and managing pay, benefits and retirement packages for public sector employees is one that is very real. In any service enterprise, the number one cost is labor, and few operations are more service driven than government. Failing to manage the costs of salaries and especially retirement benefits has put many state, county and local governments in tight financial spots in recent years.
Wholesale cuts and the elimination of benefits, however, isn't necessarily a good way to deal with the issue. While it's true the traditional retirement packages that remain available in the public sector have been largely eliminated by private companies, that's not necessarily a good thing. It will be hard, however, for any such public sector retirement plan to be politically sustained, if the only places that offer secure retirement plans are government employers.
Until the discussion shifts away from extreme views on what is appropriate for public sector compensation and those on either side of the issue start taking into account the legitimate points made by those on the other side, they'll get nowhere fast.
Possibly, the teachers union's shift in leadership will be away from an extreme view on one side of the issue, and a rational discussion of how to deal with an important public policy issue with widespread repercussions can begin in Harford County.