In Monterey County, Maryland, the Washington Post reports the county government spends 80% of their budget on personnel costs – a not unusual percentage. In their November 27th editorial entitled “Taming Montgomery’s Unions,” they further report that in the past 10 years salaries for Montgomery County employees have gone up 50% and health and pension benefits have gone up by 120%. For perspective, note the rate of inflation in the U.S. for the 10 year period through 2010 is 28%, or 2.8% per year (ref. Bureau of Labor Statistics chart Consumer Price Index).

So if you are a unionized government employee in Montgomery County, Maryland, for the past decade your salary has gone up at 1.8x the rate of inflation, and your health and pension benefits have gone up at a rate 4.3x the rate of inflation. This scenario has played out across the United States, especially here in California, with the predictable result being looming bankruptcy for the affected government entities.

To address this challenge, the Post reports “council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), who is set to become council president next month, has offered legislation that would require arbitrators in contract disputes between the county and the unions to give priority consideration to Montgomery’s budgetary and fiscal situation – in other words, its ability to pay. The bill would create a more level playing field for contract negotiations that unions have dominated for years based on their certainty that arbitrators would rule in their favor.”

This as well, adherence to unsustainable contracts in arbitration, is a story playing out across the U.S. But now that increasing debt is no longer an option, reality is bound to assert itself. Or will it? The Post editorial notes the unions have attacked Ervin’s proposal (note Ervin is a Democrat) in “venomous” terms.

The most interesting point to all this is the editorial position of the Washington Post, a newspaper with a well-earned reputation for taking a liberal perspective on events. As they write:

“If the current round of contract negotiations yields more unaffordable concessions to labor, the council should consider amending the county charter to scrap collective bargaining. Fairfax has managed well without it; Montgomery can, too.”

Public sector union reform is increasingly recognized as a nonpartisan issue. Liberals and conservatives may argue about what is in the public interest – big government vs. small government; they can argue on social issues, immigration, welfare, the environment. But none of those differences necessarily preclude liberals and conservatives agreeing on this: Public sector unions may not operate in the public interest. What the liberal Washington Post editorialized this week: “the council should consider amending the county charter to scrap collective bargaining,” is also playing out across the U.S.

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