AFSCME’s Vaccination Bonuses are the Shot in the Arm We Need

Much of RI Twitter is abuzz with the news that AFSCME Council 94 and the State of Rhode Island have negotiated a tentative contract that will lead to AFSCME members receiving two $1500 “COVID retention” bonuses if the union’s members approve the contract on December 2 (what else is in the contract is unknown). About 3,800 workers under AFSCME’s aegis stand to benefit from the two bonuses, the first of which would be paid immediately upon approving the contract and the second which would be paid in July of 2022, when the next fiscal year starts. Workers will have to prove their vaccinated status to receive these contracts. It also threatens to set off a cascade of similar bonuses from state workers under other unions as they seek to achieve parity with AFSCME’s contract (LiUNA has already said it intends to negotiate for similar bonuses).

Reactions on Twitter, which are obviously not representative of the population as a whole (a recent Pew report found of that of the 23% of Americans who use Twitter, just a quarter of those produce 97% of the tweets on the site), have been fairly negative; even from some liberal and left-leaning folks. Indeed, some such liberal folks have fallen into using inherently conservative rhetoric when talking about these bonuses; speaking about “taxpayer money” being used for this, as though all public employees aren’t paid with public dollars that largely come from taxes (by the by, it’s not “taxpayer” money, it’s publicly-owned money once the State receives it, and anyone is entitled to argue for its use, regardless of whether they pay taxes or not; although virtually everyone pays tax of some sort).

Objections, though, largely center on the vaccine mandate and the fact that only public employees will be eligible for these bonuses. The argument is that state workers are required to get vaccinated, and shouldn’t need bonuses for doing something which is required to keep their job. But, I think, this misses the underlying dynamics surrounding the mandate. First (from what I’ve observed), McKee has been kind of a squish when it comes to vaccine mandates. Second, McKee’s in a heated primary. The number of opponents he’s drawn, their distribution across the ideological spectrum of RI’s Democratic Party, and their strength in fundraising and support from party officeholders and aligned organizations are all a vote of no confidence in McKee’s ability to get reelected. Third, there are ongoing workforce shortages, leading to a rise in wages, and the public sector is not immune to the demands of the labor market; indeed, RI reportedly lost 1,600 government positions from last month, the bulk of those were state government positions (though, state government employment has been fairly level for the year, overall, the state is only down around 200 positions from January and there’s reason to believe September over-reported the number of jobs in the state).

All of these factors could’ve come into play as AFSCME negotiated its contract with the State, and made the Administration more receptive to the idea of retention bonuses; indeed, for all we know, tying them to vaccination status could’ve been a concession the Administration eked out of a more robust blanket retention bonus that AFSCME could’ve been pushing for. More likely though, AFSCME just had savvy negotiators; indeed, between AFSCME and the Administration, it’s likely the former had the more experienced side of the table.

Regardless, in the grand scheme of things, the cost to the State of these bonuses is not particularly large; assuming all AFSCME members are vaccinated and all remain in their positions until July 2022, we’re talking $11.4 million in spending, less than a tenth of a percent of the last state budget. If all 19,200 workers employed by the state were to receive similar bonuses, it would be (at maximum) $57,600,000; or just 0.4% of the last state budget (this is almost certainly high, the most recent statistic I could find suggested only 71% of state and local government employees in RI are represented by a union, and state police and correction officers’ contracts aren’t up for negotiation currently).

Some folks have attempted to portray the unions as greedy for winning these bonuses, but it strikes me that this is what unions are for. They’re supposed to go out and get these sorts of things for their members. Anyone who’s upset by these bonuses should go seek out a union organizer and consider organizing to win the bonus for themselves and their coworkers.

Indeed, something like that seems to be the worry from a section of Rhode Island’s business community, that the bonuses won by AFSCME could turn into demands from private sector workers for similar bonuses. RI manufacturers are openly worried that they might have to… *gasp* …pay people more!

Chenevert said the state’s action puts pressure on businesses to incentivize their workers in the same manner. What the governor does at the state level trickles down to the manufacturing and other sectors, he said.

“The governor’s going to say, ‘That’s the private sector, they can do what they want,’ ” Chenevert said. “Well, what he does at the state level has a trickle-down effect to us.”

This is why our ire shouldn’t fall on AFSCME for negotiating these bonuses. The impulse to punish state workers for getting something private sector workers don’t yet have is shortsighted. We should be glad for them, and private sector employees should be salivating at the idea that they could demand similar bonuses from management. After decades of wealth accumulating at the top, in this time of growing labor militancy and increasing wages, it’s time for Rhode Island’s workers to get some of the wealth they’ve made.

This is why we have unions, and we should absolutely be glad they’re getting theirs. Because now we can get ours.

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