- The Washington Times - Monday, August 16, 2010


It is open season on America’s public employees — teachers, police, firefighters, transit workers and others.

For months now, it’s been tough to open up a newspaper, turn on talk radio or watch a cable station without hearing that generous salaries or pensions are bankrupting states or localities.

The host of a national TV business show told me several weeks ago that unless teachers in California sacrificed their “lavish” pensions, children would have “worse health” because of cutbacks in the financially strapped state.

To hear the usual suspects on yak-yak radio, public-employee unions are intransigent and won’t consider giving back a penny to struggling counties and states.

And it’s not only conservatives. A national newspaper has published several prominent stories highlighting the supposed private-public sector wage gap, including one last week claiming that federal government employees average twice what private-sector workers earn.

And on public radio, of all places, I found myself in a debate with a regional newspaper’s business columnist who claimed that government workers make far more than their private-sector counterparts for similar jobs — and who blamed this supposed fact for the economic woes afflicting numerous municipalities in his state.

Because such rhetoric is likely to intensify both as elections approach and as other localities face difficulties; because the vilification of public employees serves no valid purpose; and because we’re fomenting friction among workers, it’s worth taking a step back to put this brouhaha in context.

Some of it involves simplistic and misleading journalism, but there’s also an element that involves the use of scapegoats to accomplish political aims. Let’s first address the latter.

The shrillest rhetoric, often on talk radio, amounts to ideological posturing by those delighted at the chance to simultaneously blast two favorite targets. And what enticing targets — powerful unions allegedly looking out only for their own interests, and bloated governments soaking the taxpayer but unable to pay the bills.

The grenade launchers have chosen their targets well, knowing there’s potential for stoking resentment among folks paying the freight. And they know something else — that public-sector unions are becoming the dominant force within the labor movement. Last year, with manufacturing shrinking and the service sector largely unorganized, public employees became for the first time the majority of organized labor. Hit them, and you hit the new face of labor.

But whatever the motive, aren’t the attacks fair? Hardly.

First, the economic crisis wasn’t created by working people — public or private — or their unions. It was brought to us by Wall Street and the banks and their anti-regulation Republican friends in Washington, and by congressional Democrats who insisted on lowering mortgage standards in pursuit of social goals — in short, by economic elites and the leaders of both political parties.

Second, contracts result from bargaining, with compromises by both employers and employees. If public pensions seem generous, they often reflect trade-offs on wages or work rules.

Third, police, teachers and others are more critical than ever in a time of crisis. Oakland Calif., for example, recently had a showdown about pink-slipping police to balance its budget; but how do citizens of a crime-ridden community benefit by a reduced police presence just as increasing numbers of residents find themselves in desperate straits? And how expandable are Veterans Administration employees right now?

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