FREE SPEECH ZONE | Public unions must remain

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In his LA Times op-ed of February 22, (Public unions must go), Jonah Goldberg offers a menu of myths, fictions and right wing talking points to flat out promote the elimination of public employee unions.

He starts by offering a history of how and why these unions began, and his conclusion is “it was rankly political”.  No, it was rankly an American right! Simply because one elects to follow a career path in the public sector does not refuse him/her the right of virtually every other American in the private sector– the right to organize for better wages, working conditions and bargaining. Most Americans agree; a USA Today poll shows 61% believe public employees have the right to union collective bargaining.

To extend this, we must ask, who are these people that serve us as teachers, firefighters, police officers, judges, nurses, and administrators of our local, state and Federal government? Goldberg and his ilk attempts to portray them as a class of themselves, somehow different than private sector workers; but they are not. They are your neighbors. They have the same working habits as all of us. Some work hard, some don’t…some try to game the system, most have a strong work ethic…some are good at their job, some are not. Exactly like the private sector. Actually for the most part they perform better than most workers in the private sector (try reaching and dealing with your bank, credit card company, cable company, insurance company…well you get the idea).  To vilify them or characterize them otherwise, as Goldberg has attempted is wrong.

The largest myths about public sector workers involve compensation.  There are so many statistics trying to prove that public sector folks get better pay and more benefits that it is essential to filter out the facts.  In 2011, the non-partisan National Institute on Retirement Security analyzed statistics from the U.S Bureau of Labor on this very subject during the period of 2000-2008. It determined:

  • Jobs in the public sector typically require more education than private sector positions. Thus, state and local employees are twice as likely to hold a college degree or higher as compared to private sector employees. Only 23% of private sector employees have completed college as compared to about 48% in the public sector.
  • Wages and salaries of state and local employees are lower than those for private sector employees with comparable earnings determinants such as education and work experience. State workers typically earn 11% less and local workers 12% less.
  • During the last 15 years, the pay gap has grown – earnings for state and local workers have generally declined relative to comparable private sector employees.
  • The pattern of declining relative earnings remains true in most of the large states examined in the study, although there does exist some state level variation.

Benefits make up a slightly larger share of compensation for the state and local sector. But even after accounting for the value of retirement, healthcare, and other benefits, state and local employees earn less than private sector counterparts. On average, total compensation is 6.8% lower for state employees and 7.4% lower for local employees than for comparable private sector employees.

The gist of this study indicates that at certain levels (generally lower paying jobs) the public sector might pay more; but in managerial and professional type jobs, public pay is far less than private sector jobs. Moreover, when one elects a career in the public sector, you generally give up the possibility to getting wealthy. Not so in the private sector.

Goldberg and the right claim pubic sector unions are not needed because quite often the very politicians who are “negotiating” with the public unions are politicians who have been financed by those same unions. Not so at all – Governor Walker himself is an example of this. Additionally, then it comes to teachers’ unions, negotiations are usually with School Boards who are not union members. The argument is spurious. As an aside, Goldberg pummels teachers and their unions by pointing our lags in our educational progress. As the father of a teacher in an inner city school, the causes of that deficiency are far from blaming teacher’s salaries, but rather a complex combination of many factors beyond attracting and paying teachers a good wage. Another disingenuous and patently unfair argument.

Finally, Goldberg, Walker, and others on the right blame public employee wages as a major cause of our state and national deficit problem. Again a fiction. The deficits we face as a nation are caused by vast expenditures way beyond the cost of public employee compensation. In fact, the size of the Federal government has not grown in years, and Federal employee compensation is a tiny fraction of Federal expenditures. Trying to balance a budget on the backs of public employees is tilting at windmills. And it is the same at the state level.

Well, there is one point on which I agree with Goldberg – his true observation that American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is a major contributor to campaigns, generally those of liberals. And that is what this is really about – breaking the back of a serious contributor to liberal candidates. With Citizens United now the law, few obstructions are in place to defend against right wing money. The public employee unions are one of the last barriers. Getting rid of those give the right a clear road to an even greater funding advantage, and that must not be allowed to happen. Public unions must remain.

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