Unions are crushing Yonkers and San Bernardino

By Cate Long
August 14, 2012

The progressive website Media Matters for America disputed the thrust of a recent Fox TV special called Cities Going Broke because the show laid much of the blame for fiscal stress on union presssures. Media Matters argues that the financial crisis is the real culprit here, as it devastated state and local taxes. Though the crisis did cause tax revenues to fall, Media Matters never looks more deeply at the wages of municipal workers in stressed communities to see how they affect municipal finances. Two examples now in the media show that public-sector wages and unions bear part of the blame.

First, take a look at Yonkers, NY, where Michael Spano, the city’s Democratic mayor, is waging a public fight with the firefighters’ union in advance of their upcoming contract negotiations:

Mayor Mike Spano upped the ante in his fight with the firefighters union Sunday, calling for givebacks on pay, hours and sick leave before the city considers hiring a new class.

In a news release, [Mayor Mike] Spano said his concerns about Yonkers firefighters’ high starting salaries, fewer average work hours and “generous” sick leave must first be addressed at the bargaining table…

…Spano said Sunday the starting salary for Yonkers firefighters, at $70,996, is at least 30 percent higher than what their peers earn in other departments.

The starting base salary for a New York City firefighter is about $39,400, plus $3,700 in benefits.

At the same time, Spano said, Yonkers firefighters work fewer hours annually than firefighters in other cities, creating a “low-availability baseline” that sets the stage for excessive overtime.

Spano also said about 20 percent of the total firefighters required to work on any given day in Yonkers are out on non-line-of-duty sick leave.

McGoey, the union chief, acknowledged that the starting firefighter salary in Yonkers is higher than in other cities. But he said the regular work week of Yonkers firefighters, at 37.5 hours, is longer than city police officers, at 36 hours, and many public works employees, at 35.

Firefighting is a tough and dangerous job, but the per capita income for Yonkers residents is $29,191 (in 2010 dollars), according to the U.S. Census, or over $40,000 less than the starting salary for local firefighters.

Then of course there is the bankrupt city of San Bernardino, CA, which is suffocating from the high wages and benefits paid to their union workers, especially fire and police:

San Bernardino Mayor Patrick J. Morris said on Southern California Public Radio yesterday that the city’s public employee wages were especially “lucrative.” Although city employees agreed in 2010 to a 10 percent wage reduction for two years, the firemen’s union had told him to “pound sand” and sued the city to restore the previous wage level. It’s clear from this episode that even though San Bernardino firefighters were paid an average salary of $146,359 in 2010, they are entirely unwilling to help the city escape its fiscal black hole.

San Bernardino is even poorer than Yonkers. The average annual per capita income was $15,616, according to the U.S. Census, and 27 percent of local residents live below the poverty level.

Why is the pay of public union members so out of line with their local communities? Regardless of the impact of the financial crisis, how can communities afford these wages and pensions for the retired public workers? This is not a partisan issue. Rather, it’s a fiscal issue, and in city after city across America you can read about the stresses that unions are placing on municipal finances.

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Unions is unions. Getting the pay of public union members out of line with their local communities is the goal of each and every one.

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