We know that Pennsylvania is the perennial leader in teacher strikes. It outpaces nearby states that have more school districts and permit teacher strikes. We also know that Pennsylvania prohibits certain types of employees from going on strikes-police officers, firefighters, prison guards, personnel necessary for the functioning of courts, and mental health workers.
But how many public sector strikes have there been in the Commonwealth in recent years? Data from the state’s Department of Labor and Industry, Bureau of Mediation tracked the number of strikes back to January 1, 2006 and found that there were 62 public sector strikes since that date. That’s a rate of roughly one strike per month over the time frame.
Thirty seven (60%) of these were teacher strikes; another 10 (16%) were school support staff strikes; add in the additional 6 (10%) carried out by vocational-technical school instructors and staff and secondary education personnel and it is plain to see that nearly every public sector strike in PA in the last five years was tied to education.
So what’s left over? Five (8%) strikes were transit related, with SEPTA’s 2009 strike accounting for four of these. The remaining four strikes (6%) are classified as "other" with two of those related to county-level employees.
With other states, including mid-western neighbors, making changes to collective bargaining and strike powers, will Pennsylvania join the crowd or remain out of step with its public sector framework?
In a recent news story two candidates for County Council outlined what they plan to do when they take a seat on Council. Here’s a clue for them if they are serious about addressing County problems–read the Allegheny Institute’s report; Candidate’s Guide to Crucial Issues Facing Allegheny County.
On candidate is concerned about crowding on PAT buses and the implied lack of capacity on key routes. As a Council member exactly what would she do? Solving PAT’s financial crisis will almost exclusively depend on actions taken by the state, such as eliminating the right to strike for transit workers, possibly forcing PAT into a bankruptcy and requiring outsourcing of bus service. The County could allocate more funds as a stop gap, but what other functions or programs would the candidate suggest cutting? The County is cash strapped and the financial picture is getting worse. Empty rhetoric about being concerned over bus crowding tells us nothing about the candidate’s understanding, or lack of understanding, of the genesis of Port Authority’s problems.
The candidate went on to say that all decisions and votes taken would be based on what is in the long term best interests of the County. Who can be opposed to that? But it is empty rhetoric as well. How will the candidate decide what is in the in the best interests of the County? What factors will the candidate consider and how will they be weighted? In short, what philosophy of government does the candidate hold and what do they value? There is no way for the candidate to decide what they believe will be in the best interest of the County that does not reflect their belief system. Voters have a right to know what that is.
Meanwhile, the other candidate reveals a complete lack of understanding of the County’s functions by saying he wants to put more County police on the streets and he wants more focus on early childhood education. The County does not police the street; that is a municipal function. County police are primarily an investigation unit. Moreover, education is solely a school system function. Besides both of these functions, if they were county functions, would require more spending to boost their roles. Where would the money come from? The candidate also wants to give tax credits to businesses to entice them to the County. How about cutting taxes for all businesses to make the business climate friendlier? Giving credits is fraught with possibilities of favoritism and misuse.
Again, the major issues facing the County and how to deal with them are described in the Institute’s candidate’s guide referred to above. Too bad the candidates are reduced to rhetoric and irrelevant positions-not a good sign for the County.
Hard on the heels of its repugnant and indefensible vote to smear W and K Steel by designating it as a “sweatshop”, County Council has added to its irresponsible record by voting unanimously for a resolution urging the Port Authority (PAT) to spend all the recently received bailout money by June 30 to avoid impending service cuts and layoffs.
The Port Authority (PAT) is bankrupt. It is bankrupt financially, intellectually and morally. PAT’s board and the elected officials who appoint the board members refuse to listen to suggestions of steps to preserve some bus service, choosing instead to make massive cuts; the transit workers union would rather see fellow members lose their jobs than make any concessions on compensation or work rules; and the state continues in its role as enabler of irresponsible behavior.
Facing a budget deficit of $47 million the Port Authority (PAT) says it will cut service hours by 35 percent, lay off 500 employees and eliminate service to 50 communities. The reasoning behind the 35 percent service reduction when projected revenues are only off by only 14 percent has not been adequately explained. One explanation is surely the outrageous level of health care and other benefit costs, especially those related to retirees that cannot be cut.
In any event here’s a better plan than the one PAT is talking about. First, the Legislature and the Governor should remove PAT’s monopoly over transit service and order the agency immediately to allow other transit providers to offer service, especially in those areas where PAT is planning to eliminate service. Moreover, the Legislature should eliminate the right of transit workers to strike.
Finally, PAT should ask all City and County officials, as well as civic and business leaders, to admonish the transit unions to make immediate pay and benefit concessions in order to save many jobs and lower the number of service hours that have to be cut. The retirees should be asked to make some sacrifices as well.
The continual slashing of service is no way to run a railroad, especially when PAT has no competition to fill the service gaps.
The lesson here is that government granted monopolies of a needed service whose employees are permitted to strike will become bloated, grossly inefficient, a heavy burden on taxpayers and a poor excuse for a service provider. That is PAT in a nutshell.
Is history repeating itself? Later this week the state will convene a meeting in the eastern suburbs of Allegheny County to come up with a fix for roads, bridges, and mass transit in the wake of the none-too-surprising rejection of placing tolls on Interstate 80.
News reports tell us the Port Authority is staring at a $25 million deficit in the current fiscal year, and possibly another $25 million next year. They complain that revenues are down and fringe benefits, especially health care, are rising quickly.
Is anyone surprised? Back in 2008, the Port Authority Board caved to union demands and agreed to a contract with no savings in it other than far distant pension and health care payments. A savings that could be reversed in future contracts.
The union was threatening a strike that could have savaged the local economy and brought massive hardships to transit users and produced highway traffic tie-ups. And as usual, the Authority blinked.
Thus, the Port Authority will now be forced to (a) go hat in hand to Harrisburg to ask for more money (b) raise fares again and/or (c) reduce service and layoff drivers and mechanics. This is what happens when a financially strapped entity fails to do its duty and stand up to unions. But wait. The management is hamstrung because it dares not take a strike for fear of what happens to the economy and the fact that it might end up losing some of its already slim user base.
So the problem really goes back to Harrisburg and the state government where there is no real effort to take away the transit workers’ right to strike. Consequently, severe financial problems will continue. As we have recommended many times, the Port Authority must stop filling vacancies and when 20 positions open up due to attrition and retirements, it should outsource routes those jobs supported. Over time, the Authority could make a significant dent in the ability of the transit union to overpower the Board in contact negotiations. We will know the Authority is serious when they announce a complete hiring freeze.