- The Washington Times - Monday, August 16, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

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?

Fourth, most unions are willing to help financially strapped local and state governments; they just think it should be through discussions, not demands for unilateral givebacks.

As for purported compensation gaps between the public and private sectors, it’s striking that most of the reports overlook the fact that public employees typically carry out highly defined tasks; the government sector is replete with scientists, doctors, lawyers and public safety personnel. Taxpayers aren’t funding many fast-food restaurants or yard-work firms.

And studies purporting to compare pay for comparable work raise more questions than they answer. Precisely what jobs in private industry equate to those of a cop, firefighter or NASA geologist? Even when direct comparisons are possible, the reports generally ignore training, education and skill levels.

None of this means public-sector unions shouldn’t be more forthcoming in terms of employee accountability for job performance, or in telling taxpayers that they understand economic realities and will explore contractual changes. But it does mean we should put the situation in perspective — and forgo the ideological fireworks.

Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence,” is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.

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