Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Must the public worker beatings continue until morale improves?

Brendan Williams

Guest column by Brendan Williams, former Washington State legislator

When 61% of Ohio voters rejected Issue 2 and repealed an anti-labor bill signed into law March 31 by Republican Governor John Kasich on Election Day, considerable attention was paid to the fact that the repealed bill sought to impose draconian curbs upon the ability of public workers to collectively bargain.  Indeed, it flatly prohibited bargaining in certain cases, including in publicly-funded charter schools.

Less noticed, perhaps, was that among those new provisions overturned was Section 4117.08, which stated, “The provision of health care benefits for which the employer is required to pay more than eighty-five per cent of the cost is not an appropriate subject for collective bargaining.”

In other words, Ohio voters rejected the idea that it should be impossible for public workers to pay less than 15% of their health care costs.  Following this repudiation, the state and public workers sat down to bargain again.  In a deal announced November 16 by the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, AFSME Local 11, the state agreed to extend the current contract three years from its expiration date of February 29, 2012.

Thus a state with one of the nation’s most anti-union governors has agreed, through 2015, to hold the state workers share of health care premium costs at the level – 15% – to which they rose here in Washington in last year’s legislative session.

That’s a lesson for both Republicans, and supposed Democrats, in the Washington Legislature who keep calling on state workers to pay an even higher share of cost.  It should give them pause when the special session begins November 28.

Even Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, despite a series of anti-union measures contributing toward a current recall effort directed against him, had not sought to increase health care premium costs for state workers to the level now required in Washington.  A Wisconsin state worker now pays $208 a month for family health care coverage.  In comparison, the choice between three substantive Washington benefits plans would cost a state worker’s family from $236-288 a month.

By “substantive” I do not refer to the new so-called “Consumer Driven Health Plan” that the state is offering combined with Health Savings Accounts.  This Republican idea, which has been offered by Republicans at the federal level as an alternative to universal health care, somehow passed a Democratic Legislature and was signed into law this past session.  It can be regarded as the antithesis of a universal health care system.  By cherry-picking the healthy, this new scheme may end up raising costs for other state workers.

Compare Washington to neighboring Oregon, where state workers are valued.  In Oregon, the state worker share of health care premium costs went up to a historic high of 5% – just one-third of the burden in Washington.  To help ease that burden Oregon state workers will receive a 1.5% cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) next month, coupled with a 1.45% COLA in January 2013.  A 2.95% COLA looks pretty good compared to the 3% pay cut state workers here were forced to take, along with their increased health care costs.

Connecticut is among those states that went further, giving state workers 3% annual wage increases through 2015 while locking in their health care benefits through 2022.  Even the Republican governor of Missouri’s Office of Administration is recommending legislators grant state workers a 2% wage increase.

Here in Washington, the idea of having state workers pay more toward health care is really a false solution to a revenue shortfall not of their making.

For the remainder of the biennium, requiring state workers to pay 25% – as opposed to 15% – of their health care premium costs would only “save” the state $28 million (in comparison, Gov. Gregoire thinks she can save $16 million simply by reducing the state’s contribution by $25 a worker to reflect actual health care utilization).

That $28 million is compared to a revenue shortfall of $1.4 billion, and the very real possibility of as much as $2 billion in cuts to both bridge this gap and restore reserves.

Yet, strangely, the idea of further gouging state workers generates disproportionate interest from the likes of the Seattle Times’ editorial board and certain conservative legislators of both parties.

The fact that, as of a September 2011 headcount, there were 6,549 fewer state workers than three years prior – with those left doing more for less – has not abated the appetite of those who wish to see them further suffer.  Meanwhile the Wall Street architects of our economic collapse prosper.  We can expect further calls for contracting out, despite findings like those of the Washington, D.C.-based Project on Government Oversight that the average contracted project costs government 83% more than its government-run equivalent.  A proposed cut like $5.4 million for medical interpreters would result in outsourcing such work to those, via telephone, not on the scene – jeapardizing patient safety.

Even assuming another 1,500 or so state workers’ jobs are lost under the proposed budget, and that another $28 million could be flogged out of those remaining – further depressing morale and increasing financial strain, credit defaults, and home foreclosures – the question would remain as to how the rest of the state’s revenue problem would be addressed.

Beyond further attacks upon state workers, we have seen few concrete ideas offered by conservatives.  Thus, the question for a Democratically-controlled Legislature is: Toward what end would we want to continue down the path of treating our state workers worse than John Kasich and Scott Walker?  While others rally will we fold?

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