Opinion Columns & Blogs

Will critics prevail over wage law?

Someone spoke the “W” word again at last week’s meeting of the Board of Supervisors — “wage” as in “prevailing wage.”

In this case, the speaker was Richard Margetson, one of a caviling band of Los Osos residents who generally like to spend their Tuesdays hectoring the supervisors about their notorious sewer, talking down to their elected leaders as though they were kindergartners.

This time, however, Margetson veered from his usual condescension and dipped his toe in the larger zeitgeist. He called prevailing wage “a “self-perpetuating mechanism to increase wages.”

“Has there ever been an instance,” he wondered, “where there’s been a prevailing wage decrease?” Ouch!

If the subterranean murmuring about the county’s prevailing wage ordinance is breaking through the sewer obsession of these Los Osos guys, then a broader discussion can’t be far behind.

Voters in San Luis Obispo County passed the prevailing wage ordinance in 1984, 61 percent to 39 percent.

Its basic premise was simple enough: People in the public sector should make as much as those in the private sector and salaries should be routinely adjusted to reflect that.

But, my, how times have changed in the past quarter century.

Today, there is a broad perception that public sector workers, especially those represented by public service unions, are in Fat City compared to those in private business, where unions rarely exist to guard against layoffs, firings, and a shift of health care costs to employees.

When county supervisors hear this grumbling, they say, with reason, that they don’t have much wiggle room to do anything about it because voters passed the ordinance and only voters can change or abolish it.

Some of the county’s problems have arisen because of what happened after the ordinance passed.

One of the opening volleys from employees came from the Deputy Sheriffs Association, whose members grumbled that the county administration was comparing it to counties that weren’t as expensive to live in as San Luis Obispo.

The DSA sued, and the county ended up being forced to compare San Luis Obispo County salaries to pricey places like Sonoma, Napa and Monterey counties.

More than one cynic has suggested that those counties are doing the same thing, using San Luis Obispo as a comparison, with the result an ever-upward spiral in all the counties.

In any event, once the DSA got through that door, other county employee unions shouldered their way in.

What about comparing county salaries to similar work in the private sector? Well, say county administrators and the Board of Supervisors, the private sector is reluctant to release its numbers, so it’s difficult to make comparisons.

The prevailing wage ordinance is only one reason for resentment among people who don’t work for the county. Union leaders have very effectively negotiated wages, benefits, and pensions, and it is common to hear people blame county administration for giving away the store during negotiations conducted in the salad days of the early 2000s.

Employee unions are well aware that resentment exists, and have been deferring some of their increases.

Whether that comes too late remains to be seen. Putting off an increase may be the noble move union leaders portray it as, but it’s still an increase when too many in the private sector are seeing decreases, or worse.

The flip-side view of all this is that public employees aren’t making too much — everyone else is making too little, and any adjustment should come in the private sector and it should be upward.

But that is not going to happen in our lifetimes, if ever, which means that public employee salaries and benefits are going to become an increasingly volatile public policy issue as the county slogs through these tough economic times.

There is only one way to change the prevailing wage ordinance, and that is at the ballot box.

“The board has repeatedly addressed this issue with the bargaining groups in hope that they will do something about it before it takes a more difficult course of action … that being, in my opinion, a ballot initiative that would be possibly more Draconian than some would like,” says Supervisor Chairman Frank Mecham.

Mecham says he, too, has “heard the constant grumbling but nothing formal … yet.”