Racing to the bottom

GOVERNMENT JOBS in Washington are being widely targeted for hiring freezes, layoffs, privatization, or sharp reductions in benefits. For much of the voting public—which looks at the public sector's good wages and benefits and sees the evils of a bloated bureaucracy—these cutbacks make sense. After all, we are in a recession, and our city, county, and state governments are all in serious financial trouble.

The combination of unions and government service means that public sector jobs—whether in bureaucracies, schools, or on the docks—often have far better pay and benefits than in the private sector. In government, as in private business, payroll is the biggest expense—and both wages and skyrocketing health insurance costs are eating public budgets alive.

The problem is that the discrepancy between earnings in the public and private sectors isn't usually because government workers are overpaid. Rather, it's because the rest of us are underpaid, and our earnings have been slowly but steadily declining for most of the past three decades.

Union contracts, which often guarantee cost-of-living increases and benefits, have helped mitigate that pressure in public jobs. But beyond that, paying someone what they're worth and retaining them for the long term benefits the public—a consideration private companies needn't bother with.

As the philosophy of "running government like a business" has become more fashionable—and both the Port of Seattle and the Seattle School District are flush with bureaucrats who mouth these sorts of platitudes—so has the private sector tradition of screwing workers. But workers aren't going quietly.

Last week, parents, bus drivers, and union activists confronted the Seattle School Board and persuaded its members to delay voting to replace the board's long-standing contract with Laidlaw, a union bus company. By contracting with Durham School Services, a nonunion company, the board would save $1.5 million annually.

Pro-union forces argue that the savings come at the expense of livable wages and safety. While the top 200 Laidlaw drivers have an average of 13 years of experience, Durham can only offer that 50 percent of its drivers have experience of six months or more. Activists charge that inexperience and other concerns about maintenance practices will make safety an issue.

But critics are also howling over what they charge is a lack of transparency in the School Board's decision-making process. Activists asked for a delay at the March 20 meeting because the announcement that School District staff recommended the Durham contract came only on March 4, and the district only reluctantly released information on the competing bids on March 18, two days before the board's scheduled decision. Workers, parents, and community members had little idea the process was even afoot.

All this will sound eerily familiar to waterfront workers after the Port of Seattle's controversy late last year over privatizing work on crane maintenance. There, the complaints were the same: privatization, nonunion contracts, lower wages, working conditions and safety, and an only reluctantly accountable public process. On the latter point, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers just filed suit against the Port of Seattle, charging it with violations of open-meeting laws.

Both the school bus and waterfront controversies resonate, less dramatically, throughout the area's governments. It's the "race to the bottom"—figuring that governments don't have to pay their workers as much because we can't do better elsewhere. It's the same dynamic that, on its flip side, allows corporations to play governments off each other to get tax credits, exemptions, and outright gifts—because the company can always do better elsewhere. In all cases, the public welfare—what governments are supposed to be serving—suffers. Which is why so much of this stuff seems to happen behind closed doors.

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