Friday, May 16, 2008

Unions, Contracts, and the Political Calculus of the Budget Debate

A guest post from Eric Luedtke, who is a teacher and a member of the board of the Montgomery County Education Association, as well as a past board member of the Montgomery County Sierra Club. He writes here as an individual, not representing the views of any organization.

For the people involved directly in the current discussion about the county budget, the debate is an emotional one. County employees don't see the contracts as a budget item, or the proposed cuts to those contracts as an 'employee contribution', as they were euphemistically referred to in the budget documents the County Council looked at today. To us, it's about the money we need to survive in a county where the cost of living significantly outpaces what county employees make. It's gas money, or rent and mortgage money, or, in my case, the money I need to cover day care costs for my son. For those who style themselves as taxpayer advocates, it's about limiting tax increases. Then there are those few who see this as a way to stick it to the unions, based on whatever personal vendettas they may have.

But there is another angle to this debate as well, one that has serious repercussions for the 2010 elections. And it can all be summed up in a question a friend of mine asked me a couple weeks ago, "When did being slow growth make you anti-union?"

There are three significant bases of power in county-level elections in Montgomery County. Two of them are at opposite ends of a spectrum, the slow-growth and no-growth advocates who are interested in making sure our county's growth is sustainable, both environmentally and in terms of the services we receive, and the pro-development crowd who see growth as an opportunity to build Montgomery County's economic base or, in some cases, an opportunity to line their own pockets. There is little if any middle ground between these two groups. Which is one reason why the third power base, the public employee unions, often have significant influence on who gets elected in the county.

When George Leventhal beat Blair Ewing in 2002 by a little more than a thousand votes, he did it with support from the developers' Go Montgomery slate. When Duchy Trachtenberg and Marc Elrich beat out Mike Subin in 2006 by less than 10,000 votes, they had both the slow growth community and the unions on their side. For comparison, note that the MCEA, the union to which I belong, has around 12,000 members. That's more than the margin of victory in both those races. And MCEA is only one of the public employee unions in the county.

So for either side in the growth debate, having the support of public employees can provide the boost needed to win election. And alienating those public employees can seriously undermine their electoral potential. As a number of prominent members of the slow growth community have recently been calling for cuts to employee salaries, salaries which are sustainable in the current budget situation, a sense has developed among many public employees that the slow-growth community is anti-union. I personally don't believe this is true, as I know a number of leaders of the slow-growth movement who are passionately pro-union. But the debate in the recent Council District 4 election, statements circulating by e-mail from Civic Federation activists, and comments made by a number of slow-growth members of the council make that argument a difficult one to maintain.

Adam's right - unions don't forget. And they have especially long memories when it comes to broken contracts. At the MCEA Representative Assembly, people still angrily bring up the broken contracts of the early 1990's, mentioning that public employees have never made up for those losses in salary, and never will. Those who vote to violate negotiated contracts, to damage the county's public services by undemining its workforce, will have little to no chance of support from these unions in the next election cycle. So it's entirely possible that this will be the political landscape of the 2010 elections:

In District 4, with Don Praisner sticking to his promise not to run for re-election, School Board President Nancy Navarro would be the heavy favorite to win. In District 3, if a credible challenger to Phil Andrews materializes, there will be massive support for someone perceived as an enemy by both developers and by unions. In the at-large races, incumbents who vote to break contracts will, as was the case with Mike Subin in 2006, see serious challenges from people with union support. Meanwhile, Valerie Ervin, George Leventhal, and Mike Knapp, all of whom are friendly to the unions, will almost certainly have massive union support. So the razor-thin slow growth majority on the council could shift easily.

I would argue that it's a bad idea on the merits to cut the salaries of those employees who teach this county's children, protect its citizens from crime and fire, maintain its roads, and staff its libraries. But leaving aside the merits of the arguments, the slow growth coalition in the county is courting disaster right now. And given that, 2010 looks to be a very different election year than 2006 was.