Public employees: The 21st century's welfare queens
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America's public employees educate our kids, fight our fires, make sure our food isn't tainted with toxic swill, provide services to the neediest and perform a thousand other vital tasks that the private sector has no incentive to do. They earn less, on average, than their private-sector counterparts with similar qualifications. None become billionaires.
But the government doesn't engage in the kind of ruthless and relentless union-busting that corporate America has used in a 30-year campaign that's made it all but impossible for private sector workers to organize. That explains, in part, why public workers toil in the last sector of the U.S. economy where people enjoy some job security, good health care and the prospect of a dignified retirement.
Now, an energized conservative movement has public sector workers in its cross-hairs.
Jonathan Cohn, writing in The New Republic, called public employees "the new welfare queens," an easy target for the right's politics of resentment. And the comparison is apt. Just as there were a few welfare recipients gaming the system and living the high-life back when conservatives began to demonize them, a very small number of public sector employees -- mostly the cops and firefighters to whom politicos don't dare say no (and who work a lot of pricey overtime) -- have won lavish retirement packages. Those rather specialized workers are then held up as an example of both the perfidy of "big government" and the unbridled greed of public-sector unions.
It's a classic example of analysis-by-anecdote. Economist Dean Baker notes that the average pension for a public employee was $22,000 a year in 2007. According to Mr. Baker, "the idea that we have a whole class of public employees enjoying plush retirements is nonsense that can be readily dismissed with a quick look at the data." He dismisses the right's latest attack as nothing more than "a sleazy case of scapegoating that is intended to divert people's attention from the real villains in this economy."
Here's the kernel of truth on which that "sleazy case of scapegoating" is built: Federal employees make, on average, 20 percent more in wages than their private sector counterparts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Economist John Schmitt also found that state and local employees earn about 13 percent more.
But this is a comparison of apples and oranges. Public sector workers have, on average, more experience and higher levels of education than their counterparts in the private sector (they are twice as likely to have a college degree). Mr. Schmitt found that when one controls for those factors -- comparing apples to apples -- state and local employees earn almost 4 percent less than their brethren in corporate America. And according to National Treasury Employees Union president Colleen Kelley, federal employees take home 26 percent less than those doing comparable work in private companies.
Public workers do enjoy greater average retirement and health benefits than private sector workers. Many aren't eligible for Social Security, however, so a pension (and whatever they may have socked away over the course of their careers) is the only thing standing between them and the breadline.
And it's important to understand that a primary reason for the disparity in benefits is that more public workers are organized. Last year, more working people belonged to a union in the public sector (7.9 million) than in the private sector (7.4 million), despite the fact that corporate America employs five times the number of wage-earners. Thirty-seven percent of government workers belong to a union, compared with just 7 percent of private-sector employees.
Whether in the public or private sector, union workers have richer retirement and health benefits than their non-unionized counterparts. Economists Lawrence Mishel and Matthew Walters estimated that when wages and benefits are combined, organized workers enjoy a "union compensation premium" of 28 percent.
So the real "problem" with public sector employees, according to conservative economic beliefs, is that they can't be fired at will, they bargain collectively and they have decent benefits -- they haven't lost the guaranteed pensions that all but a handful of workers in the private sector have seen vanish over the past 30 years.
That's not the story you'll hear from Republican pols and their allies on Fox News, however. As is the case with popular programs like Medicare and Social Security, the preferred narrative is that we simply can't afford to pay for those benefits -- that public workers' pensions are going to break the backs of state budgets.
But as economist Paul Krugman notes, state and local employees' pensions represent just 6 percent of non-federal public sector spending (and when combined with wages, their take still represents only around a third of state and local budgets). Mr. Krugman, like Dean Baker, concluded that the public pensions-scare is little more than "a phony issue."
It's also another example of class warfare being waged from above. Americans working in the private sector have a choice: They can fall for the right's latest anecdotally driven welfare-queens narrative and seethe with resentment as they run a footrace to the bottom, or they can ignore the distractions and fight for their own benefits. They can push back against an increasingly savage elite that's undermining their own economic security, or they can drag down another group of workers to join them on their perilous perch.
The right has made great political progress getting Americans to ask the question: "How come that guy's getting what I don't have?" It's the crux of the politics of grievance.
But the rest of us need to start asking a different question: "What's keeping me from getting what that guy has?"
Part of the answer is the right's decades-long assault on private sector workers' ability to organize.
First Published November 14, 2010 12:00 am