Union takes a tiny step

State negotiators reached a tentative settlement last week with one of the two major unions representing state employees. Emerging bleary-eyed from a marathon 26-hour bargaining session, each side praised the other for being willing to compromise. Pardon us if we hold off popping the champagne.

Gov. John Kitzhaber talked tough as the bargaining began, calling initially for no pay increases at all, given the state government's perilous financial health. In addition, the governor wanted state workers to split contributions to their pension plan and pay a portion of their health insurance premiums — as virtually every private-sector employee does.

The agreement announced Tuesday in Salem calls for workers represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to contribute 5 percent of their monthly health insurance premiums starting in 2012. That's well below the percentage paid by most employees in the private sector, and it's the first time state workers will pay anything for health insurance.

The state also agreed to grant cost-of-living increases of 1.5 percent in 2012 and 1.45 percent in 2013. On top of that, eligible workers will receive one phased "step increase" — half on their anniversary dates and half six months later. Step increases, which union officials insist are not "raises," are tied to workers' longevity in the job.

To top it all off, the state will continue to pay the required 6 percent of salary toward workers' retirement accounts.

If that sounds like a good deal to you, you're not alone. Many workers in the private sector have seen their wages frozen and their health insurance contributions increase even as the quality of the coverage declined.

Yes, state workers will take 12-14 unpaid furlough days over the two-year budget period. That amounts to a pay cut. But the fact remains that under this agreement, workers will pay a little toward their health benefit and get a pay raise at the same time.

Let's be clear about a few points:

We are not here to bash state employees. They work hard performing vital functions for the residents of Oregon, and they deserve to be fairly compensated.

State workers are not overpaid. Studies indicate their salaries are about the same as those for comparable positions in the private sector.

Neither are they underpaid. Their benefits are substantially better than those available in the private sector, which makes their total compensation superior as well.

Oregon is one of at least eight states that pay 100 percent of their employees' health insurance premiums. That is simply not sustainable in today's economy.

The tentative agreement reached Tuesday, if ratified, will affect about 3,000 state workers. Still under way are talks with the Service Employees International Union, representing 23,000 state workers.

The AFSCME agreement is a tiny step — too tiny, in our view — toward bringing state employees into the real world the rest of Oregon inhabits.

Share This Story