Reid Pushing for Union Bill in Lame Duck

by Katrina Trinko

While the Bush tax cut extensions, the DREAM Act, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell may have dominated coverage of the lame duck session, there’s another important bill that is likely to be voted on: the Public Safety Employee-Employer Cooperation Act.

The legislation, which would force public safety workers (such as firefighters and police) to use collective bargaining (currently not used or banned in 21 states), passed the House as an attachment to an Iraq and Afghanistan war spending bill this summer. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, facing pressure from labor leaders to pass the bill while there are still 59 Democratic senators (although the bill is also supported by six Republican senators), is hoping to bring it to the Senate floor soon.

“This bi-partisan legislation will help ensure that our first responders have the same rights as others to discuss workplace issues,” e-mailed Reid spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle. “We hope to consider the bill this work period.”

So why does this bill matter? Well, with states facing huge deficits, government employee compensation — which constituted half the costs of state and local governments in 2008 — can impact how states choose to balance their budgets. If there’s little ability to decrease or freeze pay and benefits for public employees, states are forced to slash spending elsewhere. And it’s not just current compensation that’s an issue, but future pensions: the Pew Center on States estimates that states already have a $1 trillion gap between what they have set aside for pensions and how much they’ve promised workers.

In addition to exacerbating states’ fiscal woes, the legislation could also increase the number of strikes by public employees and encourage seniority, not merit, as the basis for salary raises.

Considering the impact this bill could have on state budgets, it’s really surprising it hasn’t garnered more attention, especially as — thanks to the handful of Republicans backing it — it’s fairly likely that bill will pass.

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