Forum focuses on unions, public sector debate

For Shawn Moore, who has worked in both the public and private sector, the heated debate over the influence of public employees' unions comes down to more than an argument over dollars and cents.

"What we've lost in this nation is the idea of the public good," Moore said. "There are some things you support for the benefit of society. There's more than just chasing money to life."

Moore was part of a sparse crowd that gathered Tuesday at Southern Oregon University's Meese Auditorium for a forum hosted by the Mail Tribune and Jefferson Public Radio. The topic was public employees' unions and the politics surrounding them.

The panelists included Eric Fruits, a Portland-based economist with the Cascade Policy Institute; Paul McKenna the research director for SEIU Local 503 that represents 45,000 workers, 18,000 of which are state workers and Marcus Widenor, a professor who works in the University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center.

The discussion comes as labor unions suddenly found themselves thrown on national stage after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker spearhead legislation that barred public employees from collective bargaining.

The panelists agreed that Oregon's labor issues are far more subdued than the scene in Wisconsin, where union supporters have gathered by the thousands to protest Walker's proposals.

However, McKenna said union workers are facing serious cutbacks under Gov. John Kitzhaber's budget proposal, which seeks to close a $3.5 billion shortfall.

"The governor has a proposal on the table that's pretty much based all on cuts," McKenna said. "It's a proposal that I would say is going overboard."

Fruits argued that the cuts were necessary because the state is handcuffed by a faulty tax system and cannot raise enough revenue to fill the budget hole. He also suggested that public employees will have to consider paying more into their pensions and health care packages going forward.

"There's no way we can have any kind of tax increases," Fruits said.

Fruits said that on average public employees don't make much more than private workers, but certain public employees do enjoy very high wages. He said that plumbers who work for the state make significantly more than their private counterparts.

"One of the best things you can ever be is a plumber with the state of Oregon," Fruits said.

McKenna countered by saying that public employees in the past have chosen to prioritize their benefits packages over wages during negotiations. It is not uncommon for public workers to agree to pay freezes and forego cost-of-living increases, he said.

"Wages are substantially behind (the private sector) but benefits are generally better," McKenna said. "You have to look at the total compensation and not just benefits."

McKenna said there needs to be a nation-wide movement to address the dwindling benefits for private employees.

Widenor said some private workers resent public employees because of their benefits packages.

"You have a very real 'pension envy' out there," he said. "If there was more equality between private and public benefits we wouldn't have such controversy."

Fruits said public benefits packages are "extravagant," which leads to the resentment of the private sector who foots the tax bill for public workers. He said the problem is that Oregon residents have no choice but to pay taxes and have little say in how they are used in public employees' compensation.

Fruits said that unions also wield heavy political influence in some states by getting sympathetic politicians elected. They unions then deal with these politicians come budget time, Fruits said.

"I bet you can find states where (unions) are sitting on both sides of the table," he said.

McKenna said this is certainly not the case in Oregon. His union supported Kitzhaber for governor, but now faces a tough negotiation with him.

"Kitzhaber is the one bringing all these cuts to the table," McKenna said.

The panelists did agree that the debate over unions has become poisoned by the culture in Washingon D.C. and in the media.

"It seems that now we are divided into teams," Fruits said. "You have only winners and losers."

McKenna echoed the idea that the only way the issue will be settled is if both sides can come together and speak openly and honestly.

"When collective bargaining works both sides have to come to the table and prioritize what really matters," he said.

The forum will be broadcast on JPR on May 3 from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Chris Conrad is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4471 or

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