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Unions lost the soda tax fight. Do they want still more layoffs?

Friday, December 01, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board

On Dec. 1, the unpopular Cook County soda tax expired. Consumers and retailers are still raising toasts, but not with Champagne. With Pepsi. And Diet Coke. And sweetened tea and ...

Who isn’t toasting repeal of the sweetened beverage tax? Leaders of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees who represent thousands of unionized county workers. They lobbied hard to keep the unpopular tax in place — not because they supported public safety programs or were concerned about public health, but because they wanted to guarantee nice pay raises in the next union contract. To them, the soda tax represented $200 million in leverage at the bargaining table.

“If the tax is repealed, it will make the bargaining climate for Cook County employees even tougher,” AFSCME warned its members in June as the union prepared for contract talks and as the soda tax, scheduled to take effect July 1, grew more unpopular. When a July 28 court ruling finally allowed the county to collect the tax, AFSCME’s executive director sent a note to members applauding the “good news.” She also criticized County Board President Toni Preckwinkle for not immediately rescinding pink slips that had gone out when the court had temporarily suspended implementation of the tax. “Whether or not you are scheduled for layoff, be prepared to join in this fight. Your job could be the next one on this administration’s chopping block,” Roberta Lynch wrote to her members.

How’d AFSCME’s call to preserve the soda tax work out for its members?

Not well. The post-soda-tax-repeal budget that County Board members recently approved for the fiscal year that started Friday includes more than 320 layoffs and the loss of roughly 1,000 vacant positions.

Why so? In large part because of costly labor contracts already in place and the union’s inflexibility in helping county officials deal with their budget hole. Another influential union, Service Employees International Union, lobbied against furlough days, even though that path might have preserved jobs.

The unions were on the wrong side of this one. So was Preckwinkle, who argued for months to keep the tax in place, even at the expense of her own credibility. She invited at least two primary challengers in next year’s election by defiantly defending the soda tax. Even deeply pro-union County Board members eventually voted for the job cuts, painful as it was. No one cheers pink slips. But there was no other way to close the budget gap.

Will the fiscal discipline stick? That is, will County Board members reject overly generous union contracts that further strain resources? Because a government whose revenues are static can’t afford to dole out even more of the sweet pay raises for which it’s notorious. And because in terms of cuts, the lowest-hanging fruit has been plucked. The public’s tolerance for being nickeled-and-dimed is gone. And patience among County Board members for all the tone-deaf union demands is wearing thin.

Yes, Cook County adopted a 2018 budget — threats, scars and all. But that tussle will be nothing compared with what lies ahead — and not just if revenues remain soft and the board has to make more cuts to survive 2018. Chief Judge Timothy Evans’ lawsuit to block layoffs in his realm reflects the scramble for scarce resources that increasingly may consume county government. In less than a year, budget talks for 2019 begin. If union leaders can no longer bully elected officials into tax hikes — and after the soda tax episode, they probably can’t — then the only path forward will be more spending reductions and more consolidation.

Don’t look now, but perhaps the soda tax controversy stirred more than consumer rebellion. Maybe it finally will bring about meaningful, structural, necessary downsizing of a government designed for the 19th century. Taxpayers can hope.

And if hoping doesn’t work, taxpayers can do what they did when Cook County levied the soda tax. They can revolt. Did we mention that all 17 County Board seats are up for election in 2018?

Join the discussion on Twitter @Trib_Ed_Board and on Facebook.

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