June 11, 2015

Will O’Fallon Use a Competitive Bidding Process?


According to the Post-Dispatch,

Construction unions are pressing the City Council to adopt a “project labor agreement” mandating union labor and other rules for the $28 million police headquarters-court facility approved by voters in April. In return, unions agree not to call strikes on the project.

While a project labor agreement that forces the city to use union labor rather than the best available bid is a bad idea in its own right, the fact that construction unions appear to be threatening a disruption in order to get exclusive access to this project is beyond the pale.

Where to begin?

Shouldn’t public works projects be awarded based on contractor qualifications and bid amounts? Doesn’t this combination get taxpayers the best value for their dollar? On the other hand, when a city adopts a constraint on a public works project that favors a certain kind of contractor for reasons other than value, isn’t that a bad sign?

I would say so. An agreement that awards contracts exclusively to unionized labor seems to be less about getting taxpayers the best deal and more about appeasing a politically active special interest group. If unionized businesses offer taxpayers in O’Fallon a better deal than non-union shops, they will win public contracts through the strength of their bids. Special treatment is unnecessary.

I don’t think anyone wants to see a slowdown on a $28 million public works project like this, but special treatment for unions trying to exercise political muscle should be non-negotiable, especially if they’re threatening to punish the city if they don’t get their way. O’Fallon should do the right thing for its taxpayers: Take bids from all parties and assess them on their merits.

April 20, 2015

Monarch Voters Choose Transparency Over Union-Backed Candidate


This month voters in the Monarch Fire Protection District, a fire district in western Saint Louis County, chose to keep Robin Harris on the board of directors. Harris and fellow board member Jane Cunningham were instrumental in implementing transparency policies for the district, including open collective bargaining. The fact that Monarch kept its current board in place is good news for people interested in local government accountability; however, one special interest group, the local firefighters union, may not have seen Harris’ victory in the same positive light.

Supporters of both Harris and the opposition, Kelley Miller, were standing outside the polls on election day giving out information and encouraging voters to pick their candidate. A man gave me a flier that read, “Vote for Robin Harris.” I asked him why I should vote for Harris, and he told me Robin has done a good job representing taxpayer interests. The man told me he has known Robin for six years.

Lauren, an emergency medical technician from Troy, Missouri, gave me a glossy card instructing me to choose Kelley Miller instead. I asked Lauren why I should vote for Miller, and she told me that Miller would “take politics out of the district.” While she didn’t know Miller personally, as a fellow fire district employee over in Lincoln County, she felt Miller was the right pick for voters in Saint Louis County. She told me that fire protection employees at districts across the region work together during elections.

Lincoln County Fire Protection District, where Lauren works, is a union shop. If it seems odd that an EMT from two counties away would stand outside on a rainy day and ask Chesterfield residents to vote for a candidate she has never met, then this piece of information should clear things up for you. A union’s job is to negotiate with an employer to get the best deal for its members. If the employer happens to be a local government, such as a fire protection district, then the union spends resources to elect public officials that answer to the union. Thus, the union shops in the region work together to ensure that the people elected to the boards of fire protection districts are favorable to their interests.

The union-backed candidate lost this time, but there will be other district elections. The board of the Monarch Fire Protection District may one day be packed with union-backed members. However, the transparency reforms should stay. Transparency protects both officials and the public, so when it comes to local government, everyone benefits.

April 19, 2015

Missouri Could Save Millions by Looking to Wisconsin

A bill is making its way through the Missouri Senate that would allow government workers to hold their union representatives accountable through regular elections. Unfortunately, the bill’s fiscal note—an estimate of how much this bill will cost—overstates the cost of these elections.

If the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations (DOLIR)—the agency tasked with managing government union elections—had examined Wisconsin, another state that has a law like this, they may have seen how the agency would have been able to conduct elections with existing resources.

voteInstead of looking to Wisconsin, where similar elections are already held at no additional cost to taxpayers, DOLIR estimated that it would have to hire at least 21 new employees and 760 temporary elections officers to physically conduct each election. According to DOLIR, these elections and new hires would cost $1.5 million to $2.7 million a year. While $2 million is not a huge portion of a multibillion-dollar budget, it is a significant amount to most of the people paying for it, especially when DOLIR could eliminate that cost altogether by following Wisconsin’s lead.

The Wisconsin Employment Relations Council (WERC) holds union elections at no cost to the taxpayer. This cost savings is possible for two reasons: First, WERC contracts out with a respected arbitration company, the American Arbitration Association, for its union elections. In these elections, workers vote through telephone or the Internet using a secure ID number, rather than a traditional paper ballot. This service has been used successfully in Wisconsin for a couple years now, providing convenient, low-cost union elections to government workers. Second, WERC charges a filing fee to a union seeking election. The filing fee is administered on a sliding-scale basis, charging more to larger unions and less to smaller unions, and is enough to cover the cost of elections. Because of these two smart moves by WERC, Wisconsin began holding elections for state workers in 2013 without increasing WERC’s staff or its impact on the state budget.

Why didn’t DOLIR look to the practices of other state agencies when estimating the cost of these elections? That seems like the first thing you’d do when estimating the cost of a new government practice. I don’t know why DOLIR screwed up so badly. I do, however, know that government union elections can be an inexpensive and reliable way to protect our government workers’ voices when it comes to their unions and professional associations.

April 14, 2015

The Basics of Government Union Reform

Missouri law pertaining to government collective bargaining contains serious inadequacies. The law is part the product of individual court cases, part 50-year-old statute, part long-standing practice, and fails to adequately protect the rights of both citizens and workers. The picture below presents the basic reforms that would help restore accountability. I’ve written more in-depth on each of these needed reforms: union elections, open collective bargaining, and financial transparency.

Basic RGB

April 6, 2015

Chicago Fight Reveals Extent of Government Union Political Involvement


In neighboring Illinois, a government union representing Chicago transit workers is suing the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) for refusing to let union members pass out fliers in support of one of the candidates in this week’s runoff mayoral election.

From the Chicago Sun Times:

The Amalgamated Transit Union Locals 241 and 308 filed the lawsuit Tuesday in federal court, arguing that the CTA violated workers’ freedom of speech by prohibiting the “Transit for Chuy” flier from break rooms.

But CTA spokesman Brian Steele said the ATU is the lone CTA union “seeking to violate long-standing state laws that prohibit political activities on government property and government time, at taxpayer expense.”

Setting aside Chicago politics, I see this fight as an illustration of the often-overlooked fact that government unions are uniquely political actors. Government unions are one of the most important special interests in contemporary politics. They have special access and privileges, and, as taxpayers, we pay for them. A union’s whole purpose—to influence employer decisions on behalf of its members—is political when the union represents government.

In Missouri, public agencies may meet with unions and set policies in closed sessions. Also in Missouri, government unions may hide their financial and political activities, while traditional unions have to disclose this information to the public.

The framework for American collective bargaining was created to protect industrial workers from progressive-era robber barons. Is it a good idea to allow government bureaucracy the same legal privileges? If we’re going to give government unions this kind of power, we should at least hold it in check with a modicum of transparency.

April 3, 2015

Study Slams Missouri for Lack of Transparency Regarding Release Time

It’s no secret that public agencies in Missouri routinely allow for “release time,” which is paid time off from official duties to allow a government employee to perform union business. However, a recent study by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) found that Missouri public agencies often fail to track or disclose release time records, making the amount of release time actually used in Missouri impossible to calculate.

Release time is controversial. It allows unionized government workers, such as teachers or firefighters, to perform union duties while on the job. A government union, despite often being referred to as a “public union” or a “public-sector union,” is actually a private organization. The CEI study argues that release time constitutes a public subsidy to a private organization that confers no benefit to the public. When public employees use release time, they are being paid by the taxpayer to perform duties that benefit their union, rather than the public at large.

MoneyThe CEI study, despite only grazing the surface, found thousands of dollars worth of release time used to engage in partisan political activity and to attend union meetings and conferences. The study suggested that this use of release time might be an unconstitutional gift of public funds under the Missouri Constitution.

I can’t speak to the constitutional argument, but at the very least, I find the lack of transparency upsetting. How much time and money are government agencies using on release time? What impact does release time have on state and local politics? How often do employees use release time? I want to know the answers to these questions. A fact-based discussion about the value of release time depends on it.

March 27, 2015

Finally Some Agreement: Get Corporations Off the Dole

These days it seems like our political discourse has become more polarized. However, there are some issues we all can agree on. Corporate welfare, the practice of subsidizing big business at the expense of everyone else, is one of those issues. This week, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) published a piece blasting big business for accepting generous corporate welfare packages.

aFrom the release:

Boeing, a top recipient of federal grants, tax credits, loans, loan guarantees and bailout assistance, received more state and local subsidy money than any other company. In 2013, Boeing got the largest tax break awarded to a single company in any state’s history: $8.7 billion, an enticement for the company to build its 777X plane in Washington state. The company told state lawmakers it would pursue other options if it didn’t receive a sweet deal from the Legislature, along with concessions from workers.

My colleagues at the Show-Me Institute have written about corporate welfare packages directed at Boeing before. See Exhibit B:

With free-market think tanks and government unions both critical of corporate welfare, it’s surprising that the states haven’t done a better job of addressing issues like TIFs, tax credits, tax abatements, enterprise zones, public stadium funding, et cetera.

Depending on who you ask, Missouri is one of the top states in corporate welfare. I hope we can all agree: This needs to change.

March 25, 2015

Restoring Accountability and Transparency—Four Quick Points on SB 549

After several posts directed at the labor reforms included in SB 549, it might be useful to summarize what the bill would do. SB 549 is aimed at increasing accountability and transparency in government labor relations. If passed, the bill would:

  • Require a union that seeks to represent public employees as their exclusive representative to stand for re-election by those employees every two years. Existing law often prevents public employees from having a say in who represents them. These elections would ensure public employees have a voice.
  • Require collective bargaining sessions to be held in open sessions covered by the Sunshine Law. Due to a legal loophole, such meetings often are held behind closed doors.
  • Require government unions to disclose financial information in an annual filing. These filings would be similar to the filings traditional private-sector unions already have to make.
  • Limit the term of government collective bargaining agreements to two years, rendering evergreen clauses unenforceable.

All four of these are modest, yet important reforms.

Just a Bill

January 31, 2015

Union Cronyism and the Board of Aldermen

108696481_construction_worker_holding_hard_hat_articleI was driving home from work the other day and listening to “Back Stabbers” by the O’Jays on 88.1. At the end of the song, the DJ gave some commentary, “The back stabbers. They smile in your face. It could be the milk man, it could be one of your friends, or it could be the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.”

I didn’t catch why my DJ was upset with the Board of Aldermen, but one reason Saint Louisans are upset with the board right now is their decision to consider a bill that purportedly limits minority businesses from bidding on county government contracts.

The bill mimics regrettable legislation passed by the county in 2012 that requires bidders on construction contracts of $25,000 or more to maintain their own Department of Labor-approved apprentice program. The catch is that union contractors are often the only bidders who can meet this requirement.

When the county council adopted its bill in 2012, my colleague David Stokes wrote,

While some non-union companies do participate in apprentice programs through industry organizations, union-affiliated companies still have a decided advantage in meeting the requirements of this new bill. This is a blatant ploy to guarantee that union companies will win all county bids. . . .

Using the council’s authority to prevent non-union contractors from even attempting to participate in county projects is an egregious misuse of power. It is bad enough that this will increase costs to taxpayers, but the use of government for political favoritism is simply indefensible and immoral.

Just as it was two years ago, this type of legislation still appears to be a naked attempt by elected officials to please a powerful special interest.

Law should facilitate open access, such that access to public institutions is not contingent on personal relationships and political connections. Law should be structured to apply to everyone equally. By favoring unionized contractors over non-unionized contractors, this bill fails in providing a neutral rule. It reeks of cronyism, and it is the sort of thing Saint Louisans are right to be upset about.

January 22, 2015

Open Collective Bargaining at Monarch

Firefighter Turnouts-Gear Rack
In October 2013, the Monarch Fire Protection District implemented a new approach to collective bargaining with the union representing rank-and-file firefighters. Rather than hold meetings on pay, benefits, time off, and work rules behind closed doors, the board of the fire district decided to make these meetings open to the public.

With open collective bargaining, any citizen, journalist, or Monarch employee interested in the process could show up to a meeting and see the demands made by the union and the board. In theory, this process would keep demands in check, tactics civil, and allow the public to see how government decisions are made.

One might think that a more transparent process for determining how a government entity delivers services and spends taxpayer money would be welcomed by all; however, it appears that the union did not like the arrangement.

“The union lawyer tried stunts to close the meetings to the public,” says Jane Cunningham, one of three members of the fire district board.

According to Cunningham, when collective bargaining was held behind closed doors, it was easy for the union to get whatever terms they wanted in the contract. In essence, the union was able to exert complete control over the fire district because it had majority control of the board and could collectively bargain without public scrutiny.

No one would suggest that private-sector collective bargaining should occur in public forums. That’s because the terms and conditions of private employment are, well, private. But the public has an interest in what public employees are paid, both because taxpayers are picking up the tab and because the right balance of compensation is important to getting good service without being overcharged.

Now that open collective bargaining is in place at Monarch, it appears that the union is no longer getting exactly what it wants in collective negotiations, and community interests are being better served.

Will other government entities open their collective bargaining negotiations? Only time will tell. For now it appears that Monarch is taking a step in the right direction with this innovative approach to government transparency.

At the time this story went to print, the firefighters union had not responded to our request for comments.

January 7, 2015

What Do Home Care Union Executives Really Want: A Wage Increase for Their Workers or a Union Contract?

residentialworker1On Christmas week, while many Missourians were exchanging presents or grabbing Chinese food, members of the Missouri Home Care Union were hard at work lobbying the governor. Ostensibly seeking higher pay for the home care attendants the union represents, the union placed carolers outside the governor’s mansion singing Christmas songs with lyrics altered to convey their message. Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” became “I’m Dreaming of a Fair Governor,” and St. Louis Public Radio captured union members singing several bars of “home care workers are coming to town.”

The odd thing about this press junket is that the governor wants to give home care workers the pay increase the union is asking for, but the union objects to the method the governor proposes to give home care workers this pay bump. From the governor’s Office of Administration:

“The governor supports the wage range provision of the labor agreement between the Missouri Quality Home Care Council and the Missouri Home Care Union that provides a pay raise for home health care workers. To ensure the wage range provision of the agreement has the full force and effect of the law, the administration will be implementing the wage range recommendation through an administrative rule.”

Jeff Mazur, executive director of the union, responded by calling the governor’s proposal to enact the pay raise “unnecessary and unwise.” It appears union executives like Mazur are really after a governor’s order implementing a collective bargaining agreement. We’ve seen this before in other states.

Home health care unions, like the Missouri Home Care Union, formed to represent home care attendants who received Medicaid funding for acting as a personal assistant of a person in need of care. In many states, such as Illinois and Michigan, once home care unions were formed, they negotiated a union contract that forced all home care workers to pay a portion of their check to the union, whether or not the worker wanted union representation.

Imagine you’re enrolled in Missouri’s home care program and you’re getting a check from the government to help offset the cost of taking care of a disabled relative. Now imagine that the state bound you to a union contract against your will, and a portion of your check is going to union executives and their pet political causes.

Governor Nixon is right to be cautious of the union’s demands. If Missouri is better off increasing payments to people enrolled in the home care program, it can do so without entering a collective bargaining agreement. Such collective bargaining agreements can have bad consequences for the home care assistants subject to them, who often cannot afford to have their benefits tapped into by a union that they do not support.

November 18, 2014

University City Should Carefully Consider Privatization Proposal; Ignore Special Interests

University City is considering outsourcing emergency medical services (EMS). Predictably, this proposal has been the subject of debate among city council members. Two council members have questioned whether the city should outsource one of its core services, while another member urged the council to remain open minded until they have all the data on outsourcing.

The Show-Me Institute has written favorably about EMS privatization policies in the past. Privatization, when done right, can increase efficiency and expertise, provide improved services to the public, and decrease costs. However, all outsourcing proposals must be carefully considered to ensure privatization is done properly.

The University City Council ought to investigate the specifics of this privatization proposal for how it would affect services and city finances, rather than shooting from the hip and accepting or rejecting a privatization proposal on purely political grounds. Public employees, city officials, and businesses that the city may contract with are all interested parties in any outsourcing effort. When deciding whether to contract out services, the council should do its best to ignore the special interests and focus on the details of how this proposal affects the city as a whole.

Private ambulances have served parts of Saint Louis County for years, and University City might be able to benefit from private ambulances as well.

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