The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, November 26, 2010

Will anti-public pension tide swamp trade unions, too?

By The Building Tradesman

(By Mark Breslin)

News item from, Nov. 12… “Annual budget woes are a drop in the bucket compared to long-term obligations facing (some) states – particularly their promises to supply pensions and health care to millions of retired workers. Pension talk might not sound sexy, but it should: U.S. states already are short $1 trillion they should have set aside to pay retired workers, according to the Pew Center on the States. That hole could very well drive states to bankruptcy or federal bailout.”

From the same article: “Unions managed to lower or reduce the retirement age while increasing benefits in a period of history where people are living longer,” said Jack Dean, the webmaster. “So you begin seeing what the problem is.”

And finally, an entire book has been devoted to the subject. Steven Greenhut is the author of Plunder! How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation.

Anti-union sentiment is nothing new in the U.S. The union brand has been severely damaged over the past several decades; in some cases unfairly and in others self-inflicted. An even greater challenge now threatens the perception and viability of trade unions, for it is more than likely they are about to be swept up in a controversy not of their making and one they are unable to influence.

Public sector union members in the U.S. have had a hell of a ride. City, county, state and federal employees have been the benefactors of unmatched generosity granted to them by politicians who used their short-term political support to shore up their spines of jelly. The escalating benefits schedules granted many of these union employees is exploding financially into unsustainable burdens on these governments; and by extension, the taxpayers supporting them.

The under-funding of these benefit plans has not even begun to be addressed and yet the newspapers are already full of bile and outrage. We are not talking about Tea Party people here – John Q. Public is pi–ed. Within five more years, the under-funding of benefits for teachers, state workers, city workers, public safety, transit and many other unions will cause a huge and highly visible financial crisis of benefit costs vs. resources.

All unions (involved or not) are going to get the blame for it.

The identity and brand of private sector unions must be different than public sector unions. The problem is that everyone lumps all unions into one bucket – despite the significant differences between the two. Within a relatively short time period, unions will be assailed for some of the largest public tax obligations ever seen, and the question is – what will the result be? The potential is more anti-union rhetoric, damage to union political and public influence, less attractiveness for unions, for employers, for workers and more.

Private sector unions like the construction trades have been working hard for at least ten years to emphasize their economic value and competitive relevancy. Will the tide of business and public opinion sweep away these efforts when the bill comes due for the Baby Boomer public sector pensions and benefits? Trade unions like construction had better start thinking about whether they still align with these other public sector unions.

Finally, trade union leaders had better have a strong presentation as well on why things like prevailing wages, PLAs and other cost stabilizing strategies should not be seen as “more entitlements for those damn union guys.” If you get lumped in with the least popular among labor, you better have a way to differentiate yourself or you are going to get the same treatment – whether you deserve it or not.

Mark Breslin is a strategist and author specializing in labor-management challenges. He is the author of  Survival of the Fittest, Organize or Die and Alpha Dog. He addresses more than 50,000 labor and business leaders each year in North America. More on his work and profile is available at