Viewpoint - May 26, 2010

Guest opinion: Time to take on the city's unions

by Mary Gilles

For over a year now, we have been reading and hearing about the imbalance of public employee benefits — at city, state and federal levels. There is no question that the economic meltdown has heightened the taxpayers' awareness. But has the downturn caused the problem? No.

The cause of the unsustainable benefits is due to the power of the SEIU and their relationship with elected officials in Menlo Park.

The SEIU and AFSCME, the unions representing our city workers (mostly white collar public employees), have become an incredibly powerful force in American politics.

Public employees at all levels have job security, pretty decent salaries and overwhelming retirement benefits thanks to these unions who have amassed their power by infiltrating the election cycles and candidate campaigns. The relationship between our current elected officials and the support they have received by the SEIU or local labor councils is undeniably strong.

The correlation between candidates who lose at election time and their reluctance to seek or obtain union support is also quite obvious. This was clearly illustrated in the Menlo Park 2006 election when two incumbents were portrayed by union-sponsored campaign literature as near criminals because these incumbents privatized the Burgess pool and attempted to privatize the Menlo child care program at Burgess. Privatization is the union's enemy.

There is an inherent conflict of interest established between elected officials and the unions that have helped them get elected. The candidates must answer a questionnaire given to them by the labor council and if those answers aren't the right ones, support won't be given.

Questions similar to: "If you had the choice to privatize the Menlo Park pool operation, would you do so?" If the candidate answers with a "no," he is making a promise to the union even if it is not in the taxpayer's best interest to finance the pool operation with public employees. Candidates abandon representing the taxpayers before they are even elected.

The unions continue to perpetuate a false picture that public employees are downtrodden. This became quite illustrative at a recent City Council meeting, where scores of public employees sat in the chambers holding signs that read, "We are working families."

In the old days, unions were the force of good by protecting hard working people from unfair treatment and terrible working conditions. One is hard pressed to describe our public employees of today as having terrible working conditions.

It is time to re-evaluate the model here. How are we going to keep our promise to pay over 250 current Menlo Park employees their pensions after they retire at age 55? Does it make sense for the private sector to work until they are 75 or 80 years old to recoup their own lost investments from the economic downturn and to additionally finance the pensions of the public employees so they can retire happy at age 55? I don't think so.

It's time for our elected officials to make some drastic changes. There is no question in my mind that the first step is to get the unions out of the election process. When we vote in any election — city, state or federal — we should be really clear on who has received help from the unions and labor councils and vote NO for those candidates.

Mary Gilles lives on Partridge Avenue in Menlo Park.


Posted by Hank Lawrence, a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on May 26, 2010 at 7:01 am

The Unions have caused a massive flight of U.S. jobs overseas. If they were reasonable in their demands companies, for the most part, would have kept manufacturing jobs in the U.S. But U.S. manufacturing jobs plus benefits have become too expensive. And once the companies started looking at the alternatives, the alternatives became very attractive. It is a fact that a far greater percentage of Unionized companies have relocated operations overseas than non-unionized companies.

The most successful car manufacturing plants in the United States are non-union. They have higher quality cars. Take Nissan in Tennesee and BMW in Alabama for example. Do you think the Japanese and German manufacturers would for one minute provide these valuable U.S. jobs if they had the Unions to contend with. And the Unions know that should they try to unionize these non-union plants, the foreign manufacturers will just pull up stakes and set up operations off-shore.

Now the only place the Unions can go is in the Government sector. And I have to admit they have done a good job of getting very generous pay and benefits for the Government workers- at the expense of the taxpayers.

Now it is time for the Cities to fight back for their residents. They can institute a policy of hiring people from the private sector. If their City Manager refuses to do it then they should just fire him. Or they can do what Saratoga has done and just outsource the work. The unions will consume all the Cities' economic resources and leave a rotting carcass if we let them continue unchallenged. Their avarice has created a huge economic instability in the United States and it is time to take corrective action or face a series of City bankruptcies nationwide.

Posted by Joanna, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 26, 2010 at 3:04 pm

We did a good job with the pension initiative. What can we do now to address the current employees?

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 26, 2010 at 3:19 pm

From the LA TIMES:
"Nearly 20 years ago, the Vallejo City Council appointed a citizens committee to review the municipal finances, which were tottering even then.

J.D. Miller, a certified public accountant who served on the committee, remembers standing in front of a whiteboard on which he had drawn a simple graph. A steeply climbing line showed expenses — entirely labor costs. A flatter one showed revenue. The two were set to intersect in 1994.

"The contracts they had with all of their employee groups in 1993 were unsustainable. That's why the two lines collided," Miller said, adding that the City Council "continued to give raises and benefits."

Although the council did begin cutting costs, Vallejo ran through its reserves and sought bankruptcy protection in May 2008."

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 27, 2010 at 4:04 am

Here is the summary from a just released Santa Clara County Grand Jury report.Lots of well documented facts and excellent recommendations.
In this report, the 2009-2010 Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury (Grand Jury) takes a broad look at employee costs in the County's fifteen cities and recommends solutions to control costs so that cities over time can achieve fiscal and organizational stability and
eliminate budget deficits.
There is widespread concern that the cost of employee total compensation continues to increase while revenues and services decrease. Wages and salaries climb, even as the
economy struggles. Pension and health care benefits have risen substantially since 2000. Vacation, holiday and sick leave policies are overly generous and exceed those of private industry. The overall costs to cities are not sustainable. Cities need to
negotiate, approve and implement considerable cost containment measures so that employee financial obligations do not continue to escalate.
Cities should expand the comparison of salaries and benefits beyond other nearby cities to include the private sector. Options for additional cost savings include: outsourcing some activities to private industry; consolidating services with other cities or the County; optimizing job functions; and introducing lower cost pension and health care plans for new employees.
It is important for the cities to solicit community input so that taxpayer money is spent prudently and fairly, while maintaining the obligations of local government to its citizens,
and ensuring that services and infrastructure improvements are not neglected.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 27, 2010 at 4:05 am

The entire report can be found here:
Web Link

Posted by Consider The Source, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 27, 2010 at 8:53 am

Mary Gilles

'nuff said - NEXT!

Posted by Consider The Backers, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 27, 2010 at 8:54 am

Lawrence, Joanna, Carpenter

The usual suspects - NEXT!

Posted by Hank Lawrence, a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on May 27, 2010 at 9:08 am

Consider the issue- Keeping Menlo Park from having to declare bankruptcy and to stem the further erosion of city services due to egregious pensions and benefits crowding out City Services.

It is unbeleivable that "Consider the Backers" offers the lame excuse of We don't like the backers so just ignore the facts even though ignoring them will cause great harm to the city. How myopic. How pathetic! How disingenuous! How SEIU!

Posted by Steve, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on May 27, 2010 at 7:05 pm

Wouldn't bankruptcy allow drastic changes like a mass firing and rehiring of non-union employees?

Posted by Roy Thiele-Sardina, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 28, 2010 at 12:17 am

Can we all stop the Bankruptcy conversation please? Menlo Park owns too many assets to declare.

That we have an unsustainable problem is acknowledged.

The real solution is to continue to reduce total spending on employee's vs. the general fund. We cannot keep increasing the percentage of the genreal fund that goes to emlpoyee costs, at some point we will have to reduce the number of employees as the reamaining one's costs exceed our ability to pay.....



Posted by Ace, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on May 28, 2010 at 4:57 pm

People gotta make a livin'. And they want to protect their interests just as the writer wants to protect hers. Isn't it all about free speech as the conservative majority of the US Supreme Court ruled recently in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission? You can't have your cake and eat it too. If you allow corporations to have unlimited donations, labor unions should also.

Posted by R.GORDON, a resident of another community
on May 28, 2010 at 5:51 pm

R.GORDON is a registered user.

Unions have lost practically any power they still retained. The reasons are simple as put by the L.A. TIMES....The largest and most powerful unions for the most profitable film industry, totally wiped out all jobs when they began production to Canada, and eventually reduced Hollywood as a place to make television pilots.
Even the most powerful and successful filmmakers and companies finally caved in to lower cost production.
To depend on the good intents of unions is now useless given our economy which has touched everyone.
The auto industry should have paid attention to the collapse of the powerful unions in Hollywood, and even Las Vegas which were affected years before it hit the transportation industries....If you were a CEO, it would be good business...People complain about illegal imigrants and borders when most of the paying jobs are going to India, the Phillipines,and all those countries who are willing to take lower salaries with no medical plans. It ain't hard to figure.

Posted by Scientist, a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on May 28, 2010 at 7:12 pm

In natural science, when a parasite is so agressive that it kills the host, it's meal-ticket ends and it dies too. Seems to me there's a parallel here. The incredibly greedy unions (and their members) are that parasite. Reform of die!

Posted by Steve, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on May 28, 2010 at 9:30 pm


Right on!

So what can we do about current MP employees and mangers?

Posted by Retired in the Willows, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on May 28, 2010 at 10:31 pm

I signed the petition to lower retirement benefits for new city employees. I believe that the unions do need to be realistic. Given this, I shudder when I see the hostility toward them on this blog. Most of the money in this country goes to a small percentage of people; the gaps are growing larger every year. Many of the people laid off in this recession have been hard-working and want to be again; they may never have a job. The company I worked for here in Menlo Park did not have any unions to contend with, yet jobs moved overseas. Medical costs continued to rise while co-pays, premiums, and deductibles rose. What I'm trying to say is that we're all hurting and it is likely to happen more. Those of us who think we have it made (as did many of the recently laid off) may find ourselves in a similar position. I'm not saying what the unions are trying to do is right, or even good for their members; it isn't logical and will only cause bigger failure in the end. I am trying to say it's logical from their point of view. All of the public workers I know personally have already seen their department's staff cut and not had the work go away; their pay has been cut by furlough days. They work hard, as do many in the private sector. They deserve roughly the same raises those in the private sector are getting (at the moment, none). Most public workers are our neighbors.

Posted by Also Retired in the Willows, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on May 28, 2010 at 10:44 pm

I think the current initiative will rationalize Menlo Park's pension liabilities without resort to union-busting. Philophically, I believe that unions have been historically justified by the mindless greed of corporations and their managers. For example, if the United Mine Workers had any power left, the recent coal-mining tragedy wouldn't have happened, because the workers who were well aware of the safety hazards imposed by management would have complained to their union reps, without having to worry about losing their jobs in retaliation for their whistle-blowing.

But I don't see the same need for unions in the public sector. Despite the tone of some of the comments here, I doubt that most voters of Menlo Park (or any Bay Area city) want to have their public services provided by people who can't afford to live on what they're paid. And we'd recoil in horror if we learned of unsafe working conditions, and fire any city manager who tolerated them.

BTW, blaming unions for jobs going overseas is silly, to say the least. The software industry has never been unionized, and yet once the Internet facilitated the outsourcing of programming jobs to India, that's where they went! It's just good ol' corporate management looking for the least-cost alternative. And that is their job; if they didn't do it, they'd be replaced. Unions have nothing to do with it.

Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on May 29, 2010 at 7:45 am

Public sector unions are a disgrace and should be illegal, as they were until Jerry Brown allowed them in California in the 1970s. They result in a corrupt bargain between the union and politicians. There is nobody at the table speaking for the common, average taxpayer.

Posted by DThomas, a resident of another community
on May 29, 2010 at 11:33 am

SCIENTIST makes a colorful, fairly uneven comparison or allusion to unions and their members.
The worst part is that the U.S. and small business can exist without unions, but the earning power will be miniscule and the greedy and ambitious working class will succumb to being powerless except in banking and money; which will eventually be devoured by the loss of unions.It is a two way street.
Fact:Most people do not and cannot live on the wages made today. Hence,if you have no money saved, or are rich you will not be able to sustain your lifestyles.
All the focus on illegals has caused small business failures because no one will work for what the illegals got.
YET, no one seems to notice that the staffing of of "legal" immigrants who are working for VERY LITTLE both in hospitals like STANFORD,at the University, and in every hospital or major business other than Silicon Valley....which did not think about jobs when they began having the industry take over as the leader in the U.S.
The owners or CEO'S concentrated on product and they created a virtual paradise for workers who got jobs...
The SAME for George Lucas who created an environmentally friendly HUMONGOUSLY successful business which makes billions and has employees happier than clams (not from Gulf).
What is boils down to, is that the basically an ENTERTAINMENT
geared society and most of that is aimed at kids and cartoons and toys like Ipods,Iphones and all the stuff no one can really afford but manage to pay $20 a ticket for a 3D film per person.
Our newspapers are closing, our television Prime time does not have the expenses with all the top rated reality shows. Cable has taken over and the work for the average person is not there.
No auto industry, no airline industry and little hope of beating other countries to hybrid electric. China has that down.
What is left, is what started this country and moved it to greatness.
The railways. Today HSR which we denied ourselves while every country in the world is light years ahead. Denial.
Yet we pay football players 40 million dollars apiece as well as the other athletes in the "ENTERTAINMENT" part of American lives.
We have screwed up as Americans.GREED among the 1% cum 2% which will eventually fall back because America owes too much and makes nothing.
Yell at unions and blame illegals....It is OUR doing.We just think too much of ourselves.56% FAT on top of it. Sounds like we are lazy except for those who vote for new politicians who are willing to spend 60 MILLION dollars to get a government position. We are a lazy country with a bunch of "venture capitalists" and broken spirits who cannot help but blame someone else for an oil leak.Digest all that junk.

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