Congress should let states handle their own labor relations

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

ALL ACROSS America, state and local governments are struggling with recession-induced budget crises as revenue has plummeted and demand for services has remained high. But the issue is not only cyclical. Many public employees have been promised pay, pensions and health benefits that tax bases cannot sustain even in good times. As a result, voters and political leaders of both parties are rethinking the costs and benefits of public-sector unionism.

Except in Congress, it seems. Senate Majority Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) is pushing to federalize labor relations between state and local governments and some public-sector unions. The Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act would require all states to give police and fire unions "adequate" collective bargaining rights -- as determined by the Federal Labor Relations Authority. States deemed "inadequate" could wind up in federal court. Long sought by public-safety unions, the bill is supported not only by Mr. Reid but also by Republicans, including the soon-to-retire Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.). It has a good chance of passing if the Senate can fit it on its busy calendar.

Advertised as vital to the dignity, health and safety of our nation's first responders, the vast majority of whom already belong to unions with collective bargaining rights, the bill would supposedly foster public safety, especially in the 16 states that have no collective bargaining for police and the 12 that lack it for firefighters. But there's no clear connection between public-safety employee unions and public safety. Of the 10 states with the lowest violent crime rates in 2008, three did not require collective bargaining for police and one, Virginia, forbids it for all public employees. Indeed, Virginia's violent crime rate is less than half that of next-door Maryland, where collective bargaining for police prevails.

What this bill would do is impose a permanent, one-size-fits-all federal solution in an area -- public-sector labor relations -- that has traditionally been left to the states, and where state flexibility is probably more necessary than ever. The imposition on Virginia would be dramatic, of course, but even union-friendly Maryland, which lets each county decide whether and how to bargain with its employees, might find itself in costly, time-consuming contention with the feds. Farther afield, Colorado's "fire protection districts," special units of government dedicated to providing that service, would face costly collective bargaining even where firefighters and management are working harmoniously without it.

We share the bill sponsors' esteem for first responders. They should be adequately, even generously, compensated. Still, many outsized pensions now threatening state and local governments were awarded by politicians to curry favor with public-safety unions. To be sure, the bill includes a compromise provision assuring states that they don't have to bargain over pensions. But it hardly matters. The bill further empowers an already strong lobby that could use its additional clout to pressure state legislators to allow pension-bargaining anyway -- or to enact such benefits by statute. This bill is a bad idea whose time, we hope, has still not come.

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