States and Cities Slash and Burn Public Service Jobs
Business + Economy

States and Cities Slash and Burn Public Service Jobs

During his eight years as a firefighter in Lawrence, Mass., Ryan Lavallee reflected often on the contribution he was making to the community where he was born, and about the physical demands of his job. And both thoughts filled him with pride at being the guy who doused the flames.

Lavallee never thought about job security until Mayor William Lantigua abruptly axed 23 firefighters in Lawrence, one of the hardest hit cities of this recession, in a bid to balance the city budget and break the power of the firefighters union. “I always thought to myself, ‘Who is ever going to cut police and firemen,’” Lavallee said. “I thought I was getting into a career that I would never have to worry about layoffs.” That was before the Great Recession laid waste to once-certain futures like Lavallee’s, creating a formidable challenge for the public-sector unions that represent millions of workers at the state and local level.

Unions Feel the Pressure
With local and state employment down and still falling sharply, these unions — with about 7.9 million members — are under renewed economic pressure, accompanied by critics who believe the public sector is thriving while the private sector continues to suffer. Opinions differ as to whether union leaders will fight for their members or if they will capitulate amid the reality of fewer state and local jobs.

State and local governments have cut 78,000 jobs since the recession began, a trend that continued as recently as July, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The future portends an even rougher road for public sector workers, as federal stimulus flows peter out and rainy-day funds are exhausted, leading local governments to slash away at payrolls.

A recent report by the National League of Cities, a municipal government lobby group, and several other organizations predicted that cities will have lay off 8.6 percent of their workforce, or 500,000 employees. The problem for the unions, said William Rogers, a professor at Rutgers University and former chief economist at the Department of Labor, is that there is hardly more fat to cut. Localities “have done the efficiency exercise and they are now moving down into cutting bone,” Rogers said.

One reason states are under fiscal pressure is the high cost of state and municipal pensions and the growing gap between what has been promised and what states can afford to pay without massive tax increases. The Pew Center on the States puts that gap at $1 trillion.

Echoes of a Previous Downturn
The current downturn in local government employment to some extent echoes the 1980-82 recession that was, in retrospect, a Waterloo of sorts for private sector union power. A searing recession at the beginning of that decade cost millions of jobs, and accelerated a hollowing out of the nation’s manufacturing base - precisely where union muscle had been concentrated. At the beginning of 2010, there were more public sector union members, about 7.9 million, than private sector union dues-payers.

Even the toughest union negotiators concede that, quite simply, the math is not on their side.

“If you have a lower number of employees through layoffs and union vacancies, there is going to be a loss of union membership,” said Steve Kreisberg, director of collective bargaining at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

So far, Kreisberg said AFSCME’s membership numbers are fairly stable, though the number of people they represent at the bargaining table has gone down due to declining public employment. AFSCME currently has about 1.6 million members.

In another echo of the 1980s, there is a certain degree of backlash against public sector workers that is partly a function of hard economic times, and partly a result of political calculation. Republican governors have thrown the gauntlet. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota has called public employees “over-benefited and overpaid.” A YouTube video of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie telling a teacher she should leave teaching if she wants to earn more became a minor sensation on the Internet. That attitude has exasperated union officials. “I can’t believe that the problem with America is that people who work 30 years get a pension of $20,000,” Kreisberg said.

Lantigua, the Democratic mayor of Lawrence, recently lit into the firefighters and their union, the International Association of Firefighters, in a very public manner in a bid to get them to accept a $22,000 salary reduction, according to one union negotiator.

Lawrence, with about 71,000 people, grew quickly in the 19th century as a textile manufacturing center but lost its juice after World War II for the same reason. In the 1980s and 1990s, decades that saw a steady influx of Hispanic immigrants, it saw substantial urban renewal through the redevelopment of old textile mills into mixed-use facilities. But owing to the recession, the city has a budget of $70 million and a $10 million shortfall.

The same day Lavallee, who had a base salary of $52,000 last year, got laid off, the mayor fired 92 other city employees, including dozens of police officers. At a city council meeting in early July, the mayor criticized cops and firemen for “getting paid to sleep” — a jeering reference to the night shift. Firefighters said they remain proud of their work, but increasingly demoralized over their treatment at the hands of the mayor. “If I could do it, I’d take a job out of Lawrence, sell my house and leave overnight,” Lavallee said.

Public sector unions do enjoy the advantage, according to union officials — and even their critics — of working for an essential industry. Even their harshest critics cannot foresee the complete disappearance of local government jobs in the manner that, say, shoe manufacturing work has largely vanished from the United States. Lawrence, for example, has long had a serious arson problem, so there will always be firefighters there. And they still have political power, said Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute.

“They have a friend in the White House and a friend in [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and they are absolutely essential to Democratic Party turnout. It’s not just that their members turn out, but they turn out more voters.”

Related Links:
Sever State Budget Shortfalls Trigger Medicaid Program Cuts (Kaiser Health News)
New Federal Aid for School District, States (The New York Times)
33 States Out of Money to Fund Jobless Benefits (CNN Money)
Focus on State and Local Governments (The Fiscal Times)