Police and firefighters' misguided protest

Our view: Picketing the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Baltimore over pensions will hurt the city, not help the unions' cause

February 02, 2011

Baltimore's police and fire unions would like us to know they are mad at the mayor. Message received. Their lawsuit against the city, seeking to force it to reverse cuts to their pension benefits and pay tens of millions of dollars Baltimore doesn't have, was a pretty big clue, and if that was lost on anyone, the billboards around town saying Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the City Council "turned their backs" on police and firefighters certainly did the trick. But their new plan, to protest the U.S. Conference of Mayors convention in Baltimore next summer — an action that could cause some mayors to skip the meeting rather than cross a picket line — is a step too far.

We have argued that the concessions Baltimore's police and fire unions offered were insufficient to secure the city's long-term fiscal stability and that the mayor's actions were justified. We also believe it was reasonable for the mayor to impose 2 percent salary reductions on police officers and firefighters, who were immune to the furloughs other city workers endured, in exchange for extra days off. Police and firefighters disagreed. They took the matter to arbitration and they lost, so they now get the pay cuts but no days off. Still, both actions are worthy of a debate, and as it would happen, Baltimore has an avenue ideally suited for it — a mayoral election scheduled for this fall.

The unions are free to make their case to voters that the mayor was wrong to insist on requiring most current police and firefighters — and not just new hires — to work for 25 years instead of 20 before retiring with full pension benefits. They are free to persuade voters that Ms. Rawlings-Blake and the City Council shouldn't have increased workers' contributions to the plan by 4 percentage points over four years, rather than the 3 percentage points the unions offered. They are free to argue that annual cost of living increases of 1 percent for retirees under 65 and 2 percent for older retirees are an indication that Ms. Rawlings-Blake does not support public safety. And they can try to convince the public that their salaries should be held harmless while other city workers face de facto pay cuts.

Most of all, they are free to endorse another candidate, to donate to his or her campaign and to conduct get-out-the-vote efforts to make sure Ms. Rawlings-Blake is defeated.

But picketing the mayors convention will accomplish nothing more than to diminish the success of an event that is expected to bring 1,200 people to the convention center for two days and to generate $1.2 million for the local economy. In a small way, the unions' actions would diminish the very tax revenue that pays their salaries and pension benefits. But the impact on the mayors conference pales next to the protest's possible long-term effects. The mayors convention overlaps with the Americas Meetings & Events Exhibition, which is expected to draw 3,000 domestic and international meeting planners, along with 2,000 exhibitors. Convention center officials say it is one of Baltimore's biggest marketing opportunities. A protest could hurt business for years to come.

And the ones who would be hurt the most would be members of other unions. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees represents convention center workers who set up meeting rooms and perform general housekeeping. The carpenters union represents the people who erect the exhibits, and a stage hands union handles lighting and other technical duties. Even the convention center's catering employees are union workers. (They're currently negotiating a new deal with Unite Here.)

Police and fire union officials insist that their intention is not to disrupt the conference but to use the occasion to spark a national conversation about pensions and the need for cities to continue investing in public safety. They say they hope to be invited inside and that the picket will be unnecessary. But that national conversation is already happening as state and local governments from New Jersey to California grapple with massive budget shortfalls. It is doubtful that any mayor will suddenly be made aware that municipal pensions are a major issue by the presence of a picket line.

In fact, they are probably all too familiar with the kind of choice Ms. Rawlings-Blake faced last spring: Should she resort to mass layoffs of police officers and firefighters or enact a major increase in the state's highest property tax to make sure that unions' members can still retire in their 40s? We suspect we know what the voters think about that, and the unions must know too, otherwise they would choose a more productive avenue to air their grievances than trying to embarrass the mayor on a national stage.

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