The best analogy I've heard is that collective bargaining is like oral surgery without the novacaine. Unfortunately, I believe this to be an accurate comparison in many cases.
What I've learned most importantly, is that public sector collective bargaining does not commonly work well, if at all, and if it does it's because the agency has the next closest thing to all the money in the world, and the employees and union have decided to not ask for as much as they feel like they can--a very rare confluence of events. Either that, or the public agency is completely out of money, and everybody knows it.
I'm not exactly sure if collective bargaining in the public sector ever worked that well, but what I am sure of is that it does not work well in the current environment in California. Both sides, the employer and employee, blame the other side for being unreasonable, and not bargaining in "good faith" but really it's then entire system that is broken, particularly in the context of the pension benefits and costs which cannot be mitigated to a significant extent no matter what the employer does.
Compounding this already broken process, is the fact that the whole collective bargaining process is rife with conflicts of interest--all of which serve to ensure that the employer and the taxpayer get the raw end of the deal most of the time.
First and foremost, public sector labor unions can contribute large sums of money to the elected officials that they are courting to approve their desired pay and benefit increases. And they can also, recruit and fund strong opposition campaigns, and even recalls, against anyone who votes contrary to their wishes.
Second, public sector contracts are commonly negotiated by staff and public managers that receive the same pay and benefit increases that are given to the opposing side against which they are negotiating. So if they lose badly and get boxed into steep pay and benefit increases for union employees, they actually gain because they typically get whatever the union negotiators won.
It's like losing at Blackjack, and then having the casino cut you a check for whatever you lost times two or three times. Is their any incentive by staff to negotiate a "fair" contract for the employer? Besides trying to save a bit of face before the elected officials and the public, which are almost completely cut out of the process as it is.
Furthermore, staff can always say, "I gave it my best, but they just wouldn't cave, so we gave them what they wanted, we'll get them next time." And then go off and take a vacation knowing they'll get the same pay raise.
Third, elected officials and staff are paying the costs of the pay and benefit increases with taxpayer money. It's like landing on Boardwalk in Monopoly, with developed hotels, and then having to pay the rent with another player's money--it doesn't sting all that much, to be honest, not at all, especially when you get the same pay and benefit increases that employees get.
It reminds me of the time, I tipped a guy from my friend's wallet. I gave a driver 20 bucks for a lift and thought that was reasonable. My friend thought differently of course.
Perhaps the most unbelievable thing about the whole process is that this process continues to play its self out and locality after locality with both sides continuing to pretend that the process actually works if both sides bargain in "good faith." And so goes the upward rise of public sector contract costs and the half-hearted grumblings of public agency managers when despite their best efforts they somehow get "moved" off a "hard-line", that has the silver lining of increasing their own pocket books.
Needless to say, the unions would rather negotiate against staff at the bargaining table, but for public agencies makes the most sense to hire an outside negotiator to at least mitigate one set of conflicts of interest. I also believe public agencies benefit from having an outside expert to help them prepare and argue their case in collective bargaining and fact-finding.
In today's political environment, to win at the bargaining table public agencies really need to run an effective public contract campaign, which also benefits from the use of outside experts to implement an underlying strategy, and produce and publicly disseminate messaging and evidence.
The Kersten Institute for Governance & Public Policy can help with all of these tasks to help public agencies get the best result possible from a system that is broken.
Public sector unions strongly object if public agencies hire outside experts who are really good at what they do. So I'll take whatever criticism I get from the union side as a compliment to the quality and effectiveness of my work.
Until next time.
David Kersten is an independent consultant who specializes in public sector collective bargaining support and negotiation.