It began in Wisconsin and is gaining momentum across the Midwest of the USA.
State governments are considering legislation to roll back benefits for public sector employees. Some of these bills would reduce the power of public sector unions as well.
The current state of things results from negotiations between management and unions. Both parties had prerogatives based on local labor laws. Neither party imposed the current state on the other, although they may have applied whatever pressures they had available along the way.
The states are proposing to renege on agreements. The promises inherent in labor agreements are more than a commitment to deliver a benefit at a certain date. Labor agreements define working relationships. They encompass a wide range of expectations and obligations of which financial benefits are one.
The consequences of reneging on promises are serious and long lasting.
Destroying Trust. Reneging is a clear statement of untrustworthiness. Although one may offer compelling excuses—such as budget shortfalls—to justify reneging, excuses are weak substitutes for fulfilled promises. The excuses are generally dismissed. In the Wisconsin situation, critics note that the same budget that is cutting benefits to reduce the deficit are cutting taxes that would increase the deficit.
Undermining Justice. A sense of justice is essential to a functional relationship with work. When feeling unfairly treated, people withdraw from the situation. Injustice excludes people from a community. Injustice is a statement that the person unjustly treated is less than a full member of a community. Proposals to reduce the bargaining rights of unions removes employees’ primary procedure for responding to perceived injustice.
Eliminating Engagement. Distrust and withdrawal run counter to engagement with work. Instead of energy, involvement, and increasing efficacy with work, people keep more and more of their capacity on hold.
Although many Americans are adamant about the importance of balanced budgets and reduced government spending, they are also adamant about wanting high quality services from government at all levels. Current labor agreements reflect steps towards providing states with employees who provide that quality.
Although it may be necessary to developing new agreements with employee groups during financial crises, reneging on agreements unilaterally will damage working relationships. Taking away employees’ procedures for defining their working relationships through negotiation can prolong a sense of injustice.
Work engagement requires a long-term perspective. Regardless of one’s position on labor unions, behaving as a trustworthy partner is worth the effort.