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Unions have to make concessions

By Roland S. Martin, CNN Political Contributor
  • Budget battle in Wisconsin looks a precursor of 2012 elections, Roland Martin says
  • Public unions are correct not to give in on collective bargaining rights, he says
  • Martin: Unions should concede the need to pay more for insurance and pensions
  • It's a matter of basic economics, he says, as long as state budget deficits persist

Editor's note: Roland S. Martin is a syndicated columnist and author of "The First: President Barack Obama's Road to the White House." He is a commentator for TV One Cable network and host/managing editor of its Sunday morning news show, "Washington Watch With Roland Martin."

(CNN) -- The feud between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and that state's employees has all of a sudden become ground zero in the battle between efforts by the GOP to shut down unions as they exist, and those same union workers desperate to hold on to long-fought-for wages and benefits.

This pitched battle is clearly a precursor to the 2012 elections, but it is also the latest shot across the bow of union purists who are relentless in waging a war against government and business for the benefit of their members.

My dad is a union man, working for nearly three decades for Amtrak. I strongly believe in unions and their right to exist, as well as fight on behalf of the little man and woman who don't stand a chance against big business and government officials who see them as the enemy.

However, with all of that said, the economic climate we live in today means that union activists will not be able to fend off the calls for their members to pay more for health benefits and accept other concessions in order to meet budget shortfalls on the local, state and national level.

Walker wants public employees in Wisconsin to pay more for health care benefits and to contribute to their pension plans. Frankly, those are reasonable requests. Where he has largely run into trouble is the effort to end the collective bargaining rights of the various public employees.

First, the need to pay more for health care and pensions. An increasingly number of Americans who work in the private sector are paying 50 percent or more of their health care costs. Yet when you look at government employees, many local and state governments are paying upwards of 80 percent to 90 percent of health care costs. I just do not think that unions will be able to win over the public when elected officials ask them to pay for an additional 5 percent to 10 percent of their health care costs.

Workers nationwide are being asked to pay for more, and it is unreasonable for public employees to think that taxpayers are not going to ask them to do the same. A few years ago when I ran the Chicago Defender, workers with the City Colleges of Chicago went on strike because they were being asked to pay more for health care. That was six years ago. Over that period, health care costs have skyrocketed, and that is putting even more pressure on public entities when it comes to budget shortfalls.

Anyone paying attention to the crisis at General Motors prior to the government bailout would have seen that the health care obligations for retired and current employees contributed to the massive debt the company built up. Yes, GM negotiated these concessions years ago, and employees went to work every day thinking the company would take care of them for life. Well, those days are long gone, and they will not return.

The same can be said of the massive pension obligations. For years, government officials and private companies told workers that once they retired, a gold watch and a pension for life would be waiting on them. But too many officials held off in putting the money into their pension funds, trying to pay for other things and not take care of the workers they leaned on for years.

Today? Cities from Houston to Chicago are facing billions in pension shortfalls, and with no help coming from the state or federal government, everyone is scrambling to solve the problems.

This comes down to basic economics. If no additional revenue is coming in due to a refusal to raise taxes, coupled with the dramatically falling property tax revenues, government officials have no recourse but to go to the negotiating table with unions.

No one likes to lose benefits. We all want what was promised years ago. However, it is simply not going to happen. As long as these budget deficits are staring taxpayers in the eye, unions are putting themselves in a difficult situation by thinking they will not have to give something back.

Otherwise, union workers will end up like the police and firefighters in Camden, N.J.; playing hardball, only to see a mayor slash their jobs and leave half of the cops with no jobs, no health care and limited future choices.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roland S. Martin.