In today’s TimesMayor Bloomberg says that state governments don’t need to curtail bargaining rights for public workers’ unions. Instead, states just need to bargain better — and give localities the authority to bargain better, too — to protect the taxpayer. In his words:

[W]e should work to modernize government’s relationship with unions — and union leaders should be farsighted enough to cooperate, because the only way to protect the long-term integrity of employee benefits is to ensure the public’s long-term ability to fund them. In Wisconsin, efforts to rein in spending on labor contracts have included proposals to strip unions of their right to collectively bargain for pensions and health care benefits.

Yet the problem is not unions expressing those rights; it is governments failing to adapt to the times and act in a fiscally responsible manner.

The mayor repeats his call for flexibility from Albany to negotiate pensions directly with city unions and to lay off teachers according to the city’s perception of merit, not seniority.

Bloomberg is right to call for more flexibility from state lawmakers, although the ability to negotiate pensions directly should not be on his wish list.

But the mayor would have an easier time making his broader case were he to drop his too-modest (and muddled) pension proposals and ask for changes that would really start to fix things: to start with, putting new civilian workers into well-funded 401(k)-style plans, and, as Gov. Chris Christie has proposed next door, asking current workers to pay 30 percent of their health benefits.

If the mayor could secure union support for such efforts, he’d at least have some evidence that “union leaders [can] be farsighted enough to cooperate.”

As it is, Bloomberg hasn’t come close to asking what is necessary in New York, and the unions haven’t come close to volunteering to “give” the taxpayers what he has asked for.

In Wisconsin, on the other hand, the unions quickly capitulated on the economic issues in an attempt to keep their bargaining rights intact.

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