Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Politics of Union Bashing

Council Member Duchy Trachtenberg is introducing a new bill that would mandate a two-tier disability program for non-school employees other than fire fighters (who bargained one years ago), which is anathema to MCGEO and the Fraternal Order of Police. This is no mere bill, but rather the start of a new round of union bashing by Trachtenberg and the Washington Post going into the last six weeks of the election campaign.

The timing of the bill’s introduction is interesting. It was submitted on the very last day of council work (July 27) prior to the August recess. The next day of council work will be on September 20, six days after the primary. So there will be no public hearing, no opportunity for opponents to challenge it and no analysis of the bill by staff until after the election. The only public comment on the bill will come from Trachtenberg herself, her two co-sponsors (Phil Andrews and Roger Berliner) and the Washington Post’s editorial board.

That’s right, Post editorial writer Lee Hockstader (who openly brags about his power to determine elections) was briefed about the bill over a week before the unions who represent the affected employees were told. Hockstader will now have an opportunity to praise Trachtenberg, blast the unions and blast the Council Members who voted against mandatory imposition of a two-tier system a year ago. One of the Council Members who opposed mandating a two-tier system was none other than George Leventhal, whom Hockstader is determined to bring down. Leventhal and Valerie Ervin, Mike Knapp and Nancy Floreen preferred to leave the issue to collective bargaining, as Sec. 33-107 of the Montgomery County Code specifies.

It’s worth recalling the history of the issue. Problems in the county’s disability retirement program were first identified by Inspector General Tom Dagley in 2008. His report did not discuss the need for a two-tier system at all, but instead concentrated on changing management procedures. Dagley wrote:

The findings relate to the need for the Office of Human Resources (OHR) to improve internal controls and management oversight to ensure SCDR [service-connected disability retirement] benefits are protected against abuse, and for the Department of Police to ensure compliance with medical examination program requirements and related standards regarding the health status and functional capabilities of police officers.
A ream of data ignored by the Post shows the true size of the county’s disabled police workforce. The number of officers claiming disability benefits since 1985 has averaged eleven per year. That’s right: only eleven. And disabled retirements have accounted for just 1.2% of sworn officers over the last twenty-five years. Furthermore, the two poster children for abuse – officers who collected disability but went on to other jobs – were Assistant Police Chiefs John King and William C. O’Toole. Both of them were senior management who were not represented by the union.

Lost in all of this is that the Fraternal Order of Police actually put forth a proposal for a three-tier disability system last year. Here it is:

For whatever reason, this proposal did not make it through bargaining with the Police Department. If management had accepted it, a multi-tier system would be in operation today.

The bottom line is that the Inspector General diagnosed management failures as responsible for program problems. Management could fix them tomorrow by cracking down. But that would mean that senior managers like King and O’Toole could not avail themselves of benefits so easily. And so, at the hands of opportunistic politicians like Trachtenberg and union-bashing opinion writers like Hockstader, a management issue has been morphed into a “union problem.” Just how far they are willing to go is demonstrated by the fact that Trachtenberg accuses the Inspector General of ethics violations but still uses his work to score political points.

And so this last-minute bill is not about policy. If it was, it would have been introduced months ago and subject to public hearings and free and fair debate. Instead, it is all about giving Duchy Trachtenberg something to run on and giving Post editorial writer Lee Hockstader a reason to beat up unions over a management issue and slam any politicians willing to talk to them.

This sort of thing is why many people hate politics.