Last month the Los Angeles Times reported that in an effort to avert layoffs of city workers, local labor leaders accused the mayor of waging a “war against women” because the proposed layoffs, part of a plan to close an estimated $238 million city budget deficit, would affect female workers disproportionately. One leader was reported to have said that the city “,,,is remiss in not factoring in how cuts might affect its gender balance.” Several days later, an editorial in the Long Beach Press-Telegram opined that these labor leaders were greatly overstating the seriousness of the situation. In a twist that defies logic, the editors then re-framed the situation as a fight between “reproductive freedom” and “religious freedom.”
Both pieces completely missed the point, which is that city governments are NOT in the business of preserving the jobs of their employees. Broadly speaking, their mission is to provide a reasonable level of public safety and create an infrastructure that will enable people to live, work, and visit there. Although creating jobs may be a by-product of carrying out their missions, city governments do not exist either for the purpose of creating jobs, or of preserving jobs they no longer need or can afford.
Having said that, city governments ARE obligated to honor the processes in place for firing employees. Often those processes are spelled out in union contracts and must be negotiated because they affect workers’ terms and conditions of employment.
When the economy is good and city revenues are robust, politicians tend to expand the number and types of services provided to include those that are “nice to have.” The public wants these additional services, and politicians who depend on their constituents’ votes to keep their jobs are glad to oblige. As the number of services increases, more city workers are hired. Salaries and benefits, including pensions, become a larger percentage of city budgets. People get used to the additional services, and as long as taxpayers continue to foot the bill, politicians are happy to supply them.
However, this symbiotic relationship is disrupted when the economy takes a drop. City revenues fall, often dramatically, so that at the same time that there are greater demands on public services, there is less money to pay for them. Something has to give. In a service-based economy, there are few alternatives to reducing or cutting services, which means the people who provide them are no longer needed.
The question comes down to this: should taxpayers continue to pay the salaries of city employees who, through no fault of their own, are no longer providing the services they were hired to perform? Though the workers are willing and able to continue to carry on, cities no longer can afford to pay them, and politicians cannot justify asking taxpayers to fund their continued employment – especially when many of those taxpayers are themselves out of work.
There are no easy answers here. City workers who lose their jobs must find other ways to support themselves and their families. Like their counterparts in the private sector, they face a very tough job market. There is no denying the toll this situation takes on individuals and families. The reality is that city governments are not in the business of preserving the jobs of their employees. In fact, politicians have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that taxpayer money is NOT spent on services that no longer are provided. City leaders do, however, have an obligation to negotiate the terms and conditions under which workers will be terminated. They may move the now-displaced employees into other jobs for which they are qualified, help them find other jobs outside the city, or let them go. City governments simply are not in the business of preserving jobs for their workers.
Going back to the situation in Los Angeles, it makes no sense to use the gender of city workers – or any other demographic characteristic – as a criterion for deciding which services to cut and which ones to retain. In fact, making employment-related decisions based on those criteria is illegal under federal and state laws. From a human perspective, it is gut-wrenching to tell people that economic conditions have resulted in cutbacks that will cost them their jobs. Yet to assert that the city has an obligation to keep people on the payroll when their jobs have disappeared simply is not true. Preserving jobs for city employees who can provide services no longer being offered simply is not part of any city’s mission.
Instead of trying to divert attention from the real issue – even when the diversions represent legitimate concerns – labor leaders would better serve city employees and taxpayers if they spent their time seeking viable alternatives to the layoffs and, failing that, negotiating fair separation agreements for their members.
© 2012 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.