The election is (finally) behind us, a new governor will take office in January and soon thereafter two important events will occur: the 2011 Oregon Legislature will convene and the State of Oregon will sit down with our union and others to open bargaining on new contracts for state employees.
The Legislature being in session is an important backdrop in this round of negotiations, as it's well known the state faces serious budget challenges in the upcoming biennium. And, as is often the case, many are calling for the budget to be balanced on the backs of the state's workers, whom they see as overpaid.
There are two problems here. One, the state's budget gap of $3.2 billion is exponentially larger than the kind of numbers we'll be bargaining. Two, quite simply, state employees are not overpaid.
Indeed, there have been several independent confirmations that Oregon's state workers are in fact underpaid when properly compared to their counterparts in the private sector — including academic studies, a state report and exhaustive articles by both the Oregonian and the Salem Statesman Journal.
When I say "properly compared," the key component is examining jobs that require comparable education, experience and duties. It's this type of "apples to apples" comparison that's frequently lacking in debates of public vs. private sector compensation. Conservative talk show hosts, in particular, love to rail on about "average wages" of the public sector vs. the private sector, knowing full well that the private sector includes millions of entry level and/or otherwise minimum wage jobs not found in the public sector.
We understand these negotiations will be scrutinized closely. As you read and hear about them in the months to come, I ask you to keep these thoughts in mind:
• In Oregon, state employees are under-compensated an average of 4 percent — again, relative to comparable people in the private sector. You can like that or not, but it's the statistical truth.
• The key concept for making the comparison is total compensation — the combination of wages and benefits received. Historically, for a number of reasons, public employees have traditionally chosen to receive a higher percentage of their compensation in the form of benefits (which, of course, means their average salaries are even lower relative to the private sector). But total compensation is the true comparable tool.
• Given the above, it is disingenuous to simply take a snapshot in time, look at one aspect of total compensation (read: benefits) and denounce that aspect as being "too high." Any such discussion must take place within a historical context.
A perfect example is the current debate over the 6 percent PERS pickup, which began in the 1979-81 state contract. Opponents of the pickup argue this benefit has grown to be "too much" — frequently they bemoan the fact that it has "compounded over all these years." But state employees gave up 6 percent in wages in exchange for the pickup, so if the pickup had never occurred, state wage schedules would have included that 6 percent compounded over the same number of years. In other words, it's a moot point from a financial impact standpoint.
Our state faces real budget issues, and our members understand this. We are working hard to help identify areas where the state can make savings, and we call on incoming Gov. Kitzhaber to listen to these ideas from frontline state employees. As we enter this crucial round of contract talks, we need to understand we're all in this together.
(Ken Allen is the Executive Director of Oregon AFSCME, and the union's chief negotiator in contract bargaining with the state.)
For all government addresses see The Skanner Links page