America’s conservatives have been going on lately about public workers. We need to cut the government workforce. We need to reduce their incomes. We need to gut their too-generous benefits packages. All of this as part of the necessary austerity measures that will balance federal and state budgets, and lead to prosperity for all.
This seems to be scapegoating more than anything else. Put aside that this won’t come close to balancing anyone’s budgets—the dollars involved are miniscule. Put aside a possible ploy to make government work less attractive, so we get less-skilled people filling these roles—the Right seems dedicated to proving government doesn’t work, by breaking it. But let us put all of that aside.
The suggestion that we should underpay our public workforce, give them substandard benefits, and then reduce the number of people we ask to do these difficult jobs, is not merely a stunningly bad idea. Not only will it have little appreciable affect on any state or federal budgets, other than throwing perhaps hundreds of thousands of people out of work, thus stressing our safety net even more. Not only will it make public services less efficient (picture disgruntled police, firefighters, air traffic controllers—is that what America really needs?). Worse than this—the arguments supporting this idea are fundamentally dishonest.
- The Right likes to argue that government workers are overpaid. They’re not. Workers in the private sector, with comparable education, generally earn more than public workers.
- The Right complains about “excessive” public worker pensions. In truth, Reich argues, there’s nothing “excessive” about them. As Reich puts it, “After a career with annual pay averaging less than $45,000, the typical newly retired public employee receives a pension of $19,000 a year. Few would call that overly generous.” And most of that comes from the government workers themselves, who contribute to their own pension fund.
- The Right claims that public worker unions are bankrupting state budgets. In point of fact, there is no particular relationship between states that have budget problems right now, and states that have powerful public worker unions. Reich lists states with strong unions that are doing well, and ones without that have severe budget problems.
- The Right likes to tell us that public workers should tighten their belts in hard economic times, just like everyone else. They’re correct about this. That’s why pay for federal workers (and many state workers) has been frozen. Public workers are sacrificing, and it is dishonest to claim they’re not.
The reality is probably more nuanced than either side admits. For example, government workers have often traded an increase in pay for more job security or better benefits. Unions often do this, too. And the benefits of public workers are better, in some respects, than for many workers in the private sector. For example, I’m old enough to have a pension, even though I’ve never worked as a public employee. Ever fewer American private-sector workers can say that.
Still, if Reich is right, there is a legitimate question to ask. Why should conservatives argue for a “solution” that solves nothing, and whose premise is easily proven to be false?
My opinion: Because this isn’t about public employees. It’s about a larger social objective.
Public workers earn more than the average American worker, because they are better educated. American business interests want to lower labor costs in general. Lowering pay in the public sector gives employers leverage over workers in the private sector, because it reduces the options of employees. This is particularly true for educated employees. If the value of an education is lowered, then fewer people will seek an education.
Reich points out that public pensions really cannot be called “excessive.” But perhaps the real objection to public pensions isn’t the size of the pensions. It is the mere existence of the pensions. In an era when employers want to cut employee benefits, they want to make pensions look like something American workers shouldn’t have at all. Any pension will be labeled “excessive,” so this benefit—which used to be an expected standard—can be eliminated entirely.
The complaint about public worker unions isn’t about state or federal budgets. Public unions do not appear to harm public budgets to any significant degree. No, the complaint is about collective bargaining. Employers don’t like allowing employees to have a say in the conditions of their employment. It’s really about condemning the very notion of unions.
And the suggestion that Federal workers should “tighten their belts” is a generalized attack on the American worker. We all should agree to lower pay, reduced benefits, fewer safety regulations.
This whole anti-public-worker gimmick is really about distracting Americans from our actual problems, and from remedies that might truly address them. It’s about scapegoating public workers, which plays into the “government is bad” Tea Party meme, while hiding the real villains here, people like the billionaire Koch brothers who are funding the Tea Party. It’s about disempowering workers in general, and the middle class in particular, to keep America’s wealth flowing upward to the richest few percent.
It’s merely another example of the divide-and-conquer class warfare strategy of the far Right. It’s time they get called out on it.
- Robert Reich: War on public employees is ‘shameful’ (timesunion.com)
- Blackstone says don’t scapegoat public employees (reuters.com)
- The shameful attack on public employees (salon.com)