Ken Plum: Misplaced blame

Public employees and unions have been getting a bad rap lately. As tax revenues have declined along with the value of public pension funds, government workers have been getting stuck with part of the blame for our current financial crisis. Local and state budgets have to be reduced to be in balance with revenue, but some legislators have seized the opportunity to whack government programs they do not support anyway. Pension funds that appear underfunded with the diminished value of their holdings with the recession are being cited as somehow being responsible for the financial crisis of which they are a victim. School teachers, police, and fire personnel along with other government workers are taking it on the chin with blame and in the pocketbook with loss of pay. More Virginia teachers would have lost their jobs had it not been for the State Senate that took the position that I advocated in the House this legislative session that school budgets not be reduced.

The attacks on unions that have been heard in other states have come to Virginia. More than six months before the fall elections there already are “robo” calls and websites extolling the power of big unions in the Commonwealth. The irony is that such a tactic would be tried in Virginia. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (, there were 3,473,000 wage and salary employees in Virginia in 2010. Of that number, a whopping 161,000 were in unions or employee associations – 4.6%, a percentage that has been steadily dropping. Only North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, and Arkansas have a lower percentage of workers in unions. Public employees have no collective bargaining rights and are prohibited from striking in Virginia. The State’s right to work law has been in place for more than 50 years. Some of us voted against an amendment to enshrine the right to work law in the constitution as being unnecessary because it has never been challenged. Labor’s biggest goals in recent years have been to raise Virginia’s minimum wage law that is the lowest in the Nation and to accept an extension of federal unemployment insurance money – both of which failed.

The Virginia Retirement System that historically has been one of the soundest in the country needs shoring up with the recession, and politicians at all levels of government are struggling to balance their budgets with the decline in revenue. While these issues are not unique to Virginia, attempts to put the blame on the low number of union workers and public employees in Virginia or other states miss the mark. Listen for more calls on your home telephone trying to assign a simple blame to a very complex issue. A phone call or a website paid for by a political party is probably not the best source of information on this or other issues.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

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