Union Settlements: Pro or Con for Kitzhaber?

As rank and file members of state employee unions consider proposed contract settlements, the jury is out on whether the process reflects political credit or debit for Governor John Kitzhaber.

A state employee and SEIU member rallies on the Capitol steps.The public employee collective bargaining process was one of the early tests of the strength of the governor's administration near the start of his third term in office. He campaigned, at least in part, on his ability to deal with public employee unions during collective bargaining negotiations. But critics of public employee collective bargaining contend that, when a Democrat governor's representatives sit across the table from union negotiators, it is like two friends deciding how to spend someone else's money.
    
It is not clear whether the rank-and-file will support the tentative agreements reached by their negotiators. According to The Oregonian and the Statesman-Journal, some members don't like the agreement and are urging other workers to reject it.  Beyond normal reporting, how do the newspapers know?

Well, for one thing, state employees posting on a new Facebook page, VoteNoOregon, are complaining about unpaid furlough days and the requirement that 23,000 represented workers at state agencies and universities must start paying 5 per cent of their health benefit costs.

Most citizens who don't work for government probably believe that contributing to health care costs is logical and fair. Their own health insurance costs are rising, and the vast majority of them share in the increases. For Kitzhaber, gaining health care cost contributions from employees was one of the promises he made along the campaign trail last year.

For the state government workers, contributing to health care costs – and taking more furlough days – are offset in the tentative contract by a 1.5 percent cost of living increase, effective December 1, and another 1.45 percent increase in 2013.  Workers not already at the top of their pay scale also will get step increases.

Plus, in another development that often rankles the private sector, the state will continue to contribute the full 6 percent of a worker's pay into the Public Employee Retirement System. This means the state will pay a total of 12 percent of an employee's gross pay annually into the PERS fund for that employee's retirement, a contribution that has been in place for many years and now will be continued.

If workers don't ratify the tentative contracts, the next likely step? Kitzhaber and his managers will begin preparing in earnest for an employee strike. Even before the proposed settlement was reached, they issued general memoranda alerting managers to be ready.