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SCOT LEHIGH

Unions need to retire tired tropes

Now that the mayoral election is over, it’s time for a retirement party.

No, not for Mayor Menino. That comes later. This party is for some of the tedious accusations that have become a reflexive response to any disagreement with or criticism of organized labor.

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Let’s start with “union-bashing” and “union-busting.” Do you object to the aggressive, disruptive tactics the police and fire unions sometimes employ in their contract disputes? Things like, say, threatening a picket line to block the Democratic National Convention or heckling the mayor and his family and guests at a State of the City address?

Voice your objections and, in the lexicon of labor, you’re a union basher.

Do you think Boston families would benefit from the educational options charter schools offer? You’ll soon find yourself accused of union-busting. No matter that you’re not actually advocating breaking up any unions. Or that charter faculties can unionize if they want.

Do you, like Menino, think that since they work one of the shortest days of any urban district, Boston teachers could accept a stipend rather than their hourly rate in exchange for adding some extra time to their day? Why, that’s almost as bad as unleashing a squad of Pinkertons in BTU Hall. You, sir or madam, are engaged in “teacher-bashing.”

Do you think a contract that would give members of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association twice the average raises of other city workers is too much, particularly since the average patrolman already earns $109,000 a year when details and overtime are included?

Voice your objections, and, in the lexicon of labor, you’re a union basher.

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That makes you a corporate lackey, an elitist who sides with “the 1 percent” against “working families.”

Those regular blasts of blunderbuss bombast cloud critical distinctions and issues. For starters, there’s a big difference in dynamic between private-sector and public-sector unions. In the private sector, unions and management are engaged in a tug-of-war over the appropriate division of a company’s income. Unions are an important counterweight to corporate power.

But the public-sector situation is quite different. The people sitting across the bargaining table aren’t corporate overlords or owners or their representatives. Rather, they represent the taxpayers. Further, public-sector bargaining isn’t about the fair division of a firm’s income. It’s about how to divide a slowly growing pool of public revenue. A disproportionate share for one union usually means less for other employees or other public purposes. And because mayors are often interested in the electoral support of the unions they’re negotiating with, there’s at least an incentive to give them unaffordable extras as a political inducement.

All that argues for a more transparent negotiating process, a clearer examination of contract details, and more public conversation about the impact major contracts will have on other areas of city spending.

Unfortunately, however, those matters too often get lost in the accusatory exchange that accompanies any discussion that includes city unions. Menino is a social liberal and fiscal moderate trying to budget limited tax dollars across an array of legitimate purposes and needs. But on those occasions when he opposes an arbitrator’s award as too expensive, one could easily come to think he’s a rapacious plutocrat trying to grind hard-pressed employees into the dirt.

The rhetoric is hugely hyperbolic, and in many instances, no doubt intentionally so. Why? Because its super-heated nature obscures the real-world choices public managers face.

Take the pending police contract. The percentage increase over and above what most other city unions have settled for will cost an extra $17 million a year by contract’s end. Even the difference between the city’s final offer of 19 percent over six years and the 25.4 percent the arbitrator awarded would be roughly $6.5 million a year.

The city could do a lot with that extra money. It could, for example, make a down payment on extending the school day, which has a price tag of between $25 million and $40 million.

Shouldn’t that be a legitimate topic for a broader discussion?

Now, I don’t really expect the union folks to retire their tired tropes. But I hope others will see that rhetoric for the silliness it is and insist on a clear-eyed consideration of all public-policy issues — including those where unions have a stake.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.
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