My public sector union

My pay and benefits are contractually agreed upon by a public sector union and the agency that employs me.

I’m part of a unionized work force, but I’m not a member of the union – I choose not to pay dues, but I’m still “protected” by the union as if I was a member.

Here are some of the benefits that the union has obtained on my behalf.

I pay a pittance for incredibly good health care benefits – I think I pay around $100/month, but it’s not really a big expense, so I’m honestly not sure how much the total is. This covers my whole family, regardless of how many children I have. For an additional nominal fee, we get extra dental and eye care.

When I retire, I’ll be able to continue paying a relatively low rate for these “Cadillac” benefits. I’ll also get a pension in addition to (what’s left of) social security and my own savings. Our 401k contributions are matched more generously than most private employers.

I’ve gotten a pay raise every year I worked for government. I’ve also gotten promoted most years. My salary has gone up 2.5 times in the 8 years I’ve been working for government. This increase is unusual – it’s largely the result of promotions. (I am an excellent bureaucrat, after all). However, even the average employee seems to get at least a 4% salary increase every year and if you stick around long enough, you’ll get a promotion or two now and then.

I get about 20 days of vacation per year and another 13 sick days. Most people who have been here longer get 26 days of vacation. Almost everyone works on some sort of adjusted schedule that effectively gives us more vacation. For example, in a bi-weekly period, some people work eight nine-hour days, one eight-hour day and take one day off. Others work eight ten-hour days and take two days off (though this is frowned upon in many groups). Still others accumulate additional time off for any amount of time that they work beyond eight hours on any given day. For example, if I work nine hours today, I’ve earned one hour of vacation that I can take anytime. We can carry over 30 days of vacation from one year to the next. Supervisors basically have to let employees take any vacation beyond this amount at the end of the year. One guy I know at another agency basically took off the entire month of December last year because he had so much vacation.

I’ve known people who work strange schedules as well. For example, I knew a woman who came in at 6:00am and left at 2:30pm every day (eight hours with a 30 minute lunch break).

Perhaps most importantly, the union makes it very difficult for anyone to be fired. For all intents and purposes, this means that we have near total job security.

These benefits are very good and they’re very hard to value.

I had two job offers from private companies this year. In both cases, they offered to increase my salary significantly (let’s say on the order of 15-20%). However, in both cases I think I would have been financially worse off after adjusting for the value of these benefits. I would have been much worse off once you adjust for the non-monetary benefits. For example, it’s worth a lot to me that I have a job from which I will not be fired that will pay for all of my family’s needs, I can actually take vacation, and I get to see my kid every day by 5:30. When my wife and I sat down to discuss how much this was worth to us, we came up with a very high number (around $100,000). Part of the reason for this is that I get paid very well already. If my salary was more mediocre, it might be worth leaving to for a significant increase in salary, but in order to make significantly more money than I currently do, I’d have to work a lot more than I currently do.

My feelings on the current situation in Wisconsin and around the country are somewhat divided. On one hand, I recognize that public sector unions have negotiated employment contracts which governments cannot afford. On the other hand, governments have – in many cases – signed contracts. I’ve turned down other jobs based on my current employment contracts. My family has decided where to live based on these contracts, etc. The fact that the government may have been stupid when it signed the employment contract isn’t my fault. There’s a process for solving problems like this and the process should be followed.

The truth is that many governments are bankrupt under an honest accounting system. The solution is proper accounting and bankruptcy. Bring the liabilities associated with employment contracts honestly on to state balance sheets and begin the bankruptcy process if the state’s liabilities exceed its assets. Employees would become creditors and get paid from bankruptcy proceeds. Any other solution is dishonest.


21 Responses to My public sector union

  1. sconzey says:

    For example, if I work nine hours today, I’ve earned one hour of vacation that I can take anytime.

    This is pretty much like the engineering firm where I work, except we call it “Flexi Time”, and we’re limited to taking 8 days (or 60 hour) a year. We get 25 days vacation, plus public holidays.

    On one hand, I recognize that public sector unions have negotiated employment contracts which governments cannot afford. On the other hand, governments have – in many cases – signed contracts.

    Absolutely. I used to be a blue rinse Thatcherite and would have been shouting “BURN THE UNIONS” with the best of them 😛

  2. dearieme says:

    Yes, contracts must be honoured – for the job you’re in. But you surely couldn’t object to a system where the terms changed when you accepted a promotion? That would be a decent and gradual way to attempt the rescue of a near-bankrupt system.

    One proviso – if investigation revealed that the contract was agreed as a result of fraud or bribery – what then?

    • Foseti says:

      I agree that’s a fair way to proceed.

      I think the legal system is capable of dealing with fraudulent contracts. I don’t see why the system in a different way in this case.

      • dearieme says:

        I had in mind, say, the contracts of a police force in some American city. Suppose someone discovered that the politicians who agreed to it were simply bribed by the police union – bribed, that’s to say, beyond the ordinary delivery of votes.

      • Foseti says:

        Interesting. If you define bribery too broadly, then you’d capture all government employment (in my opinion).

        The relationship between the Democratic Party and Federal workforce is certainly a patronage relationship.

  3. Darrell says:

    Hay Moses:

    Not to be too downcast, the Saudi King gave all government employees a 15% raise, has increased social benefits to all citizens and is building new housing for the expanding population.

    In San Francisco, where I live, public transportation is alive and renewing itself. Our Public Defender, Jeff Adachi, is thinking about putting on the November 1011 Ballot a proposition that will reduce the city’s ever increasing pension and health care cost.

    His previous pension and health care reform proposition, proposition B, lost. But hope springs eternal.

  4. Darrell says:

    Perhaps most importantly, the union makes it very difficult for anyone to be fired. For all intents and purposes, this means that we have near total job security.

    Government work is created through policy: fire, police, and transit workers among others have to go through a training program before they can begin to perform their daily duties.

    In the private sector work is created by demand and the duties are defined by market forces.

    Responding to social needs is the predominate force that guides government work, and it is the organizations culture that determines if these social needs are met in a cost effective manner. And it is the organizations culture that defines the effectiveness of the workforce.

    If a worker is not performing up to standard then one must first look at the organization’s culture. If I was a union official I would make it very difficult to fire a bad employee because my first reaction is that it is a culture problem and not a performance problem. Until management proves otherwise I would sandbag them until they proved the worked did not want to learn their duties or the worker is unfit to perform in an effective manner.

    One has to also remember that governments are responsible for effectively dealing with social problems and social issues: with the major social problem being unemployment and the major social issue being poverty.

    Sorry about the previous post it was addressed to someone else.

  5. botogol says:

    I don’t think this is so very different from working for a large blue-chip private-sector firm (in Europe at least) where ‘flexible’ working, buying/selling holiday is the norm, the management style is indistinguishable from beaurocracy, and – despite the bluster – the reality is that very, very few people indeed are ever sacked for non-performance.

  6. Chuck says:

    Within the framework of a state or federal system that currently allows public employee collective bargaining, yes they are beholden to their contract. But they can exogenously overturn that contract by changing laws. Are you suggesting that territories can’t change laws as they see fit?

    You say that if states sign contracts with employees that are untenable for the states – that this isn’t your problem. By that logic, your mortgage – after it becomes untenable if you lose that gov’t job – isn’t the mortgage company’s problem either. At which point foreclosure forces you out of the contract.

    I think your point there is some sort of defense mechanism that public employees erect in order to justify their cushy deal. No offense to you on that; you were smart to take a gov’t job when you could. You were taking what was available to you. But understand that just because you took that job 8 years ago does not imply that the entity that gave it to you is beholden to you in perpetuity.

    • sconzey says:

      To be fair to Foseti he isn’t saying “pay me my money and fuck the rest of ’em;” he says in the last paragraph that the government is bankrupt and that in an honest world public employees contracts would be rolled up by the administrator.

    • Foseti says:

      Sort of, but mortgage contracts are different. They’re secured by the property – failure to pay does not give the company recourse to the person’s other assets.

      Still, I take your points. All I am suggesting is that normal laws and accounting standards be followed.

  7. dearieme says:

    “There’s a process for solving problems like this and the process should be followed.” I believe that’s wrong. Sovereign Immunity means that a government – state or federal – can just renege on its contracts unless that happens to be unconstitutional. So, strictly speaking, Foseti’s contract and his pension could just be torn up without his having any legal recourse. Municipalities, however, generally can go into bankruptcy. So I understand, but IANAL.

  8. dearieme says:

    That’s presumably why there was talk of introducing a bankruptcy law for states.

  9. dearieme says:

    It would be one way of acknowledging that the states no longer deserve sovereign immunity because the USA is no longer truly a federal entity – it has become essentially centralised.

  10. Shawn says:


    Do you work for the Federal Government? Or state, or local, or county? Which would be the best for someone interested in government work?

    • Foseti says:

      I work for the Federal government. I think it’s best, particularly if you can get into a more specialized agency. I’m working on a post on how to get a government job.

  11. pwyll says:

    Steven Landsburg agrees that one of the most desirable aspects of your job is the security of it:

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