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Collective Bargaining in Pawnee, Indiana

by CORY EUCALITTO | January 18, 2012

Pawnee is Indiana's seventh largest city, founded in 1817 on what was then Wamapoke Indian territory. With a rich history of atrocities and bread factory fires, people today are drawn to Pawnee for its "moderately well educated" citizenry, visits to the Sweetums Factory, and of course the newly renewed tradition of the Annual Harvest Festival. Of course, Pawnee is not a real town, but the fictional setting for NBC's television comedy "Parks and Recreation." Its collection of public servants and entrepreneurs, however, provides an apt lens through which to examine the state of public and private sector collective bargaining in Indiana. 

State EmployeesParks and Rec

State auditors Chris Traeger and Ben Wyatt were sent to Pawnee to shore up the city's finances, eventually leading to a brief government shutdown. As state employees, Chris and Ben's ability to collectively bargain was broken up by Governor Mitch Daniels upon taking office in 2005. They were originally granted via an Executive Order issued by Governor Evan Bayh in 1989. According to Daniels, rescinding this order was crucial to his ability to reorganize and consolidate state government. 

Prior to 2005, Chris and Ben likely would have been dues paying union members; at the time, 66 percent of eligible state employees were. After the change, however, dues paying state employees plummeted to just 7 percent. Chris and Ben would have had little incentive to continue paying dues, perhaps instead indulging in multivitamins and Batman costumes. 

The flexibility afforded to the state without the burden of costly, time consuming union negotiations helped transform the state budget. Privatization measures, like the lease of the Indiana Toll Road, have reduced costs to state government without reducing services. The state's workforce is leaner than an East-Meets-West turkey burger, as the number of full time active state employees is near lows not seen since the late 1970's. While scheduled pay hikes for state employees have been scarce, the implementation of merit-based raises has shifted incentives and rewarded high performing employees. All told, according to a study by State Budget Solutions, Indiana now holds the third lowest state debt per capita in the country.  

Collective Bargaining in Pawnee

Pawnee's Department of Parks and Recreation is headed by the mustachioed libertarian Ron Swanson, yet it is largely driven by the energy of Deputy Director Leslie Knope. Other employees include Tom Haverford, Gary "Jerry" Gergich, and Donna Meagle. Ron, Leslie, and the others are free to collectively bargain for the terms of their employment with the city, and as a result, their contracts may include some outrageous perks.

It might look like the real-life contract between the City of Indianapolis and its Parks Department employees, which contains some perks that seem well suited to a TV sitcom. Union elections and meetings that take place exclusively on city time? Treat yourself. A $160.00 per employee allocation to purchase work boots that happens to increase by $10 every year? Treat yourself. Compensation for up to 240 hours of unused overtime pay upon termination of employment? Treat. Your. Self. 

As Deputy Director of Pawnee's Library Services, Ron Swanson's second ex-wife (Tammy "Two," given his affinity for women named Tammy) might be subject to the terms of a contract similar that for library employees in Hammond, Indiana. Not only must the Library deduct union dues from all employee paychecks, but a "fair share representation fee" must be taken from those who do not wish to join. It might be tough to feel sympathy for that "monstrous parasite" Tammy Swanson, but in reality, this impacts real workers and families.

Contracts like these, hardly outliers in the world of public employee unions, can cripple local budgets. They are locked in for the duration of the entire contract, often leaving costly personnel expenditures untouchable when revenues dry up. There can be little question that rising personnel costs would have contributed greatly to Pawnee's budget crunch, which led to a government shutdown and the potential for layoffs. In the realm of state budgeting, well-run local governments can make a world of difference. Local flexibility to weather the ebbs and flows of economic conditions and state aid assures policy makers that vital local services will not be jeopardized by changes at the state level.

Entertainment 720 and Indiana's Private Sector

The Indiana legislature is currently deciding on "right-to-work" legislation, a provision in place in 22 other states that prevents union contributions from existing as a prerequisite of employment. The legislation could have tremendous impact on Indiana's private sector, including two of Pawnee's leading investors and entrepreneurs, Tom Haverford and Jean-Ralphio Saperstein. What would right-to-work have meant Pawnee's first and only entertainment media conglomerate, Entertainment 720?

For starters, supporters of right-to-work argue that it would protect the rights of Entertainment 720 employees like former Indiana Pacer and NBA Sixth Man Award winner Detlef Schrempf. Schrempf would not be forced to contribute to a union as a condition of his employment shooting baskets to look good. Keeping the decision with individual employees lessens the chance of unforeseen unionization, granting Entertainment 720's owners and investors confidence that their future balance sheets stay, as Jean-Ralphio would say, flush with cash. These factors might explain why, in the past ten years, the private sectors in right-to-work states have outgrown those in non right-to-work states by a pace of 4.69% to 3.82%. 

The growth of Entertainment 720 would have added new revenues to Indiana's state budget through its own success and that of related industries, from high-end, Kahlua-style liqueurs to pet funeral service providers. As the recent recession that has wrecked so many state budgets shows, a healthy economy can be a massive contributor to a fiscally sound state budget. In fact, right-to-work states on average have a state debt per capita nearly $7,000 less than non right-to-work states. In its purest form, right-to-work would apply equally to all private sector workers. 

Issues related to unionization are often inaccurately jumbled together, tossing aside the differences that legislation respects between not just public and private sector unionization, but collective bargaining rights at different levels of government. While Pawnee and its citizens might only exist every Thursday night at 8:30 EST, the real citizens of Indiana will reap the benefits of sound state budgeting and a thriving economy.


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