February 1, 2013

Editorial: Taking a chance on the future

These are anything but routine economic times in the United States. That means that, while few contract negotiations are ever “routine,” bargaining in this uncertain era is an adventure in blind forecasting.

So why do governments and their unions insist on long-term contracts?

The reason is simple: Contract negotiations, whether routine or extraordinary, are painful. They test the patience, as well as the will, of both sides — and those sides are represented by people who are probably at least acquaintances and, possibly, colleagues, neighbors or friends.

As soon as a three- or four-year contract is agreed upon, a palpable sigh of relief escapes, and both sides mutter thankfully, “I’m glad that’s over.”

Negotiations consume valuable time. If the talks go on during business hours, arrangements must be made. If they go on after hours, all parties are inconvenienced.

Long-term contracts also assure both the governing body and the workers that they have stability in planning.

So it’s no surprise that, the longer the period of time covered by the contract, the happier the negotiators are.

Nevertheless, as negotiators for Essex County government and the Civil Service Employees Association are finding out now, difficulties arise when trying to craft a three-year contract these days.

The 400 county workers covered by the last contract received back-to-back raises of 4 percent in 2011 and 2012. Surely, the taxpayers were hard pressed to afford those raises. Non-union county employees got no raises during those years. In fact, the pay increases exceeded what many employees in both the public and private sectors were receiving at the same time.

We would conjecture that, had the contracts been negotiated a year at a time, no 4-percent raises would have been possible.

Now, the workers have rejected the new contract terms, which had been tentatively agreed to during negotiations for the next three years. Issues of overtime for certain employees, particularly in the Sheriff’s Department, may have been a factor. The raises called for in the contract would have been 0, 1 and 2 percent for 2013, 2014 and 2015, respectively.

As the economic recovery hobbles, surging one day and sputtering the next, both sides are taking a chance that 3 percent over three years is a good deal. If the economy flourishes, the raises may be smaller than warranted. If it continues to lag, they may be too expensive.

That’s why everyone might be better served by shorter contract periods in these unpredictable times.

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