A middle ground for public employee unions

The continuing standoff in Wisconsin between Gov. Scott Walker and Democrats in the legislature over his plan to sharply curtail state employees' collective bargaining rights has ignited a fierce debate about the value of public sector unions and the role they have played in the fiscal crises affecting state and local governments nationwide.

But a much more low-key dispute in Anne Arundel County demonstrates that the question of whether government unions are good or bad is overly simplistic. The problem is not whether government workers have the right to collective bargaining about wages, benefits and other issues; it is whether elected officials have the ability and willingness to make difficult decisions about the management of taxpayer funds. Governor Walker's union-bashing approach seeks to absolve politicians of that responsibility, but a proposal by Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold would reinforce it.

In 2002, Anne Arundel County voters approved binding arbitration for public safety workers. That's not uncommon among Maryland's large counties, but what is unusual is the degree to which the Arundel law cedes fiscal authority to an unelected arbitrator. Not only must the county executive include any award in his budget proposal, but the law requires the council to adopt it. The county's charter designates the council as the final fiscal authority, but this provision strips it of that power. The county hasn't had a problem with binding arbitration yet, but with all nine of its public safety unions currently in negotiations — the official deadline for agreements was Monday, though talks are continuing — Mr. Leopold is rightly concerned that he could face arbitration at a time when the government is already confronting a budget shortfall.

His legislation would make Anne Arundel's binding arbitration law mirror that in several other Maryland jurisdictions, where the executive is forced to submit the arbitrator's recommendations to the council but the council is not bound to adopt them. That still provides unions with more leverage than they would have otherwise; without binding arbitration, the executive's word would be final, but under this proposal, unions would have their grievances heard by a neutral party and would be able to make their case to the council as well as to the executive. But it keeps final fiscal authority in the hands of the people voters elected to manage the public coffers.

In Baltimore County, where binding arbitration was adopted after a voter referendum in 2002, council members have shown respect for the arbitration process but also a willingness to say no when necessary. The police union there has gone to arbitration twice, most recently in 2008. That year, the council adopted 4 percent raises for veteran officers at a time when other public employees' salaries were frozen. Council members said at the time that they were uncomfortable with the decision but made it anyway because they felt it conformed to the will of the voters. But the council also rejected six of the arbitrator's 14 findings over issues such as bereavement leave and holiday pay. The union has sued the county over then-County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s handling of some of the non-economic elements of the arbitration finding, but the council's power to make final fiscal decisions is not in dispute.

That's the way it should be. Unions should have the ability to bargain on their members' behalf, but our elected representatives should act as the ultimate guardians of taxpayers' money. Much of the rhetoric surrounding the dispute in Wisconsin centers on the fallacy that unions force governments into unsustainable spending decisions, a convenient story that lets politicians off the hook. What is needed is not the abolition of collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers but for public officials to make responsible decisions even when they are politically unpopular. Mr. Leopold is right to make sure the Anne Arundel County government has that power, and the council, which has delayed voting on the matter, should adopt his proposal.

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