It was a little more than 33 years ago – on March 24, 1981, to be exact – that Fort Wayne Police officers ringed the old City-County Building with siren-blaring, lights-flashing squad cars and walked off the job when City Council members meeting inside refused to approve a new contract ahead of schedule. The illegal “wildcat strike” ended six hours later when a majority of council members promised to approve the deal at a subsequent meeting.
There is no indication that the large number of city employees expected to attend Tuesday's City Council meeting have anything similar in mind, even though the stakes are much higher: the possible loss of collective bargaining for the city's roughly 1,300 union employees. And that is wise, because any similarly juvenile display would only underscore the premise embodied in three ordinances scheduled for introduction: Public-employee unions do not always represent the public interest.
Whether any of the three bills actually passes remains problematic: One ordinance introduced by John Craword, R-at large, and Russ Jehl, R-2nd, would eliminate bargaining for about 500 employees other than public safety workers, and another would create a single bargaining unit to represent workers now represented by several bargaining units. The third and most controversial proposal, introduced by Crawford alone, would eliminate bargaining for about 800 police officers and firefighters. Regardless of the outcome, Crawford and Jehl have done the city a favor by pointing out the inefficiencies and conflicts of interest inherent in public-sector unions – problems that transcend pay.
Are city workers overpaid when compared to their non-union counterparts in Allen County government? Crawford thinks so, although that is a topic of legitimate debate. But when he and Jehl criticize work rules that prevent employees in one union from assisting similar trained workers in another, or that resulted in a grievance being filed against a Botanical Gardens supervisor for picking a weed, the point they make is obvious and irrefutable: Such nonsense must end.
Crawford is on equally sound footing when he points out how Fort Wayne taxpayers actually pay union bosses about $200,000 per year to seek more and more benefits from those very taxpayers, and that city attorneys and managers spend about $133,000 of their time per year dealing with union issues.
Jeremy Bush, president of International Association of Firefighters Local 124, suggested in a statement this week that union presidents play a role in such things as safety measures, policy changes, discipline and community outreach, often raising money for charity. "The value to our department and city surpass the costs associated,” he said.
Perhaps. But it is union members – not taxpayers – who should bear that cost.
Contrary to a statement from Mayor Tom Henry last week, Crawford and Jehl are not “attacking” city workers, nor are their efforts “just plain wrong.”
Crawford doesn't claim Fort Wayne is in imminent danger of becoming another Detroit, but he does correctly identify how politicians and public unions there conspired to enrich themselves at the city's expense, ultimately contributing to its bankruptcy.
When former City Councilwoman Liz Brown in 2009 proposed an ordinance that would have required public safety retirees to bear some of the cost of their health insurance, it failed by an 8-1 vote even though the cost of city benefits had increased by more than 44 percent in the previous five years. Taxes have been increased since then, in large part to pay for public safety, and with six Republicans on council – the number needed to overturn a mayoral veto – Crawford and Jehl are optimistic.
Frankly, if I were Mayor Henry, I would secretly wish them well despite the necessity for any Democrat to appear pro-union in public. Dealing with multiple unions only makes governing more difficult, and city money should pay for employees and public services, not union expenses and negotiations. And employees should be paid according to their merit and value, not a contract that treats everyone the same. Allen County is, in fact, considering such a program for its workers.
Perhaps efficiency will be gained even if some form of collective bargaining remain, the elimination of which would not automatically reduce salaries in any case. But if that happens – if Henry and the GOP-dominated council can reach a useful compromise – it will be because Crawford and Jehl dared to propose something they knew to be controversial, but has already yielded dividends for Republicans governors and citizens alike in such places as Wisconsin and New Jersey and, yes, even Indiana.