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Gov. Adversarial

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Gov. Chris Cristie.jpgThey tried to corner New Jersey's Gov. Chris Christie on Face the Nation on Sunday. When host Bob Schieffer asked him to give a yes-or-no answer to the question of whether he thought public employees in his state should have collective-bargaining rights, Christie replied: "What I believe in is true, adversarial collective bargaining."

I'll bet he does.  Christie is the personification of adversarial.

It's something to keep in mind when considering the imbroglio in Wisconsin over the law proposed by Gov. Scott Walker which would take away from state employees most of their rights to bargain collectively.

A lot of the anger is aimed at the unions, and with good cause.

But, there are two sides at every bargaining table. Making a contract is not like grocery shopping, where you go up and down the aisles and fill the cart with whatever you want. Collective bargaining is adversarial. 

The unions can ask for the Moon, but no one has to give it to them.

Why don't we reserve some anger for the wimpy politicians who gave away the store?

What the Walker bill seeks to do is protect elected officials from themselves. Since they lack the guts to drive hard bargains, he wants to artificially implant some. Sort of like a hairweave.

The message is that unions are just too darned strong. They buy that power by mobilizing their members and by being big campaign givers to politicians. In other words, they act like every other interest group in the country. I guess being too effective is their sin -- and they are being asked to pay for it.

This strikes me (no pun intended) as unfair. You are losing the game? Then change the rules: We can block and we can tackle, but you can't. That should take care of the problem.

What Christie is saying, in so many words, is: "I don't need no stinkin' law that gives me the upper hand. I'll rip their throats out fair and square!"

As the New York Times pointed out in a piece on Sunday, Christie has a couple of things working in his favor: his aggression; his ability to deliver his message (in this, writer Matt Bai compares him to Reagan and Clinton); the arrogance of the unions, and the changing times. Bai says that Christie is trying to make public unions the "Welfare Queens" of the new century -- and he seems to be succeeding.

His personality aside, there's a confluence of two events that provide wind to Christie's sails, both triggered by the recession.

First, the economy tanked. People lost their jobs or had to take cuts in pay. Most of them do not have old-fashioned defined benefit pensions.  Today, if they are lucky, they have a contributory 401k. If they are not, they are out of luck. And most of them do not have generous cover-it-all health plans. If they are lucky, they have decent coverage. If they are not, they have none at all.

Second, as the economy tanked the stock market did, too. Public pension funds that were counting on return of 7% to 9% a year lost 15, 20, 25 percent of their value. The gap between what they would owe pensioners and what they had widened. The Pew Center on the States estimates that local and state government pension funds face a cumulative unfunded liability in excess of $1 trillion.

The generous health and pension packages workers got in the past became a thing of the past, except among public employees.

That trillion-dollar deficit did not happen overnight. The roots of the public pension problems go back 20 years. In Pennsylvania, as early as 1992, Gov. Tom Ridge (a Republican, no less) was handing out improved pension benefits in the apparent belief that the rising stock market would pay for these goodies. He was wrong.

In the face of this, most public unions have refused either to contribute more to their health plans or pension funds and also resisted attempts to get them to trim their benefits. Their line is: You made the deal. You owe us. So shut up and pay.

Asking the American worker of 2011 to pay for shortfalls in pension and health plans from another (golden) era also is unfair.

Christie is far more attuned to this reality than the unions.

Something has to give and he intends to get it.


-- Tom Ferrick













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