© Paul K Davis, 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
September 5, 2010

We, our nation, and the world are currently in the midst of economic recession. I feel this recession was caused or at least enabled in part by the previous presidential administration's conservative economic policies and lax regulation of corporations critical to our economic infrastructure, such as banks and investment agencies. I also feel this recession was caused, in part, by the greed of a few who found themselves able to set their executive compensation without the restrictions of competition, and made short-sighted selfish decisions I also feel this recession was caused in part by failure of our national and world leadership to respond constructively to exceedingly basic and important environmental concerns, such as global warming and the limited supply of petroleum.

But what I wish to talk about this morning is not primarily the cause of the recession, but rather response to it, especially by public employee labor unions, and how this response shows a connection between two of our Unitarian-Universalist principles: the principle of the use of the democratic process and the principle of equity in human relations.

There has been talk of a double-dip recession, but I think that we are already in the second dip, or perhaps "wave" would be a better term, and that our public employee unions are battling that second wave.

Unlike the Great Depression, which started in Europe and spread to the United States, this recession started in the United States and has spread to the world. The first wave started with a spike in gasoline prices, which I believe led to a burst of the delicate housing bubble. With the sudden drop in home values, the spending ability of a portion of the populace was curtailed. Corporations responded to the expected drop in consumer demand by laying off employees, which made things worse. In engineering terms, this was the dreaded plus-sign feedback, instead of the helpful minus-sign feedback which adjusts a system to its equilibrium. The main response of private sector labor unions was to support employee buy-out programs, which helped bring the workers themselves into the decision process so that, to a certain extent, the families who could most easily bear it took the buyouts, rather than corporations imposing layoffs without regard for family circumstances. I believe this mitigated the first wave of the recession.

The second wave of the recession has been in the public sector. Unlike private sector products, there has been no loss of demand or need for public sector products, such as law enforcement, fire protection, education, etc. Nevertheless the public sector was dragged into the recession by the fact that the private sector recession cut government income. Income tax collections have been reduced because income has been reduced, and property tax collections have been reduced because property values have collapsed. The response of nearly all government entities has not been to raise tax rates, as would have been logical since there was no drop in need for government services, but to attempt to wiggle out of pension commitments and, again, lay off employees.

In most cases, when the matter has come to a vote of unionized employees, the majority have favored loss of pension guarantees and reduction in wages over layoffs. When the vote has appeared to go the other way, it has often been because the governmental unit was unwilling or unable to guarantee that the pension and wage cuts would actually prevent layoffs. I believe this has been a strong mitigating effect on the second wave of the recession. It is critical for the continued functioning of the economy that unemployment be reduced.

I see these events as showing that the use of the democratic process, within the private sector and public-sector labor unions, has led to decisions enhancing equity in human relations, that is, decisions in which the right of everyone to work has been protected more than the right of a smaller number to receive higher wages. I applaud all those unionized workers who have voted to accept pension or pay cuts in preference to layoffs.

I would also like to take this opportunity to discredit some absurd claims that I have heard circulating. It has become common to hear the claim that our state and local governments are in fiscal crisis because public employees, especially unionized employees, obtained excessive pensions and pay. Baloney! There was no problem until tax income plumetted. Public employee pay, when compared within job categories, is actually lower than corresponding private employee pay, though pensions are generally modestly better, making total compensation very comparable. I heard a recent claim that public salaries were perhaps twice private salaries, but this was not based on comparison by job category. As an example, at NASA where I work, the janitorial and maintenance services have been contracted out to private companies, but scientists are directly employed by the government. So, if you average the pay of our government employees and compare it to the average pay of our private employees, you will get a grossly distorted and misleading statistic.

In conclusion, then, I wish to say that good values are interrelated, and they support each other. Several of our values are under attack in the present economic circumstance: equity in human relations and respect for the interdependent web of all existence, most notably. We can best protect them by attention to other values, such as the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the use of the democratic process, and especially the use of the democratic process not only in our congregations, but in society at large, which includes democratic labor unions as well as our cities, school districts, states, and many other levels of government.

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