Bullseye on Public Sector Workers and Unions

Labor Organizing

afscmeNew Orleans For all the talk about the U.S. Congress and what it might do at the hands of the new majority, there’s still a couple of circuit breakers handling too much power surge when business has to go to the Senate or even face a Presidential veto.  In the states rouge legislators could be much more frightening, especially as they move against public employees and therefore their unions in this last bastion of relative labor strength.

Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times wrote a scary piece this week detailing some of the draconian steps that legislatures and new governors are proposing to stick it to public employees and their unions, including in some situations outright withdrawal of recognition for the unions.   There are few folks out there that have not seen this coming particularly given the last year of struggle in heavily unionized California around state and local employees and the drumbeating by New York’s new democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, and President Obama on wage freezes.

Part of the problem is the wide misperception that public employees are living high on the hog with better salaries and benefits, so now it’s time for them to share in the pain.  There is little evidence that this is in fact the truth.  The only traditional advantage that public employees have had historically is that their jobs were simply more stable and secure than in the private sector, and workers traded the security of a job certain for the ups and downs of the private sector business cycle.  Unions in the public sector, rather than being greedy, simply enjoyed the same security as their members since they were not facing constant employee turnover and therefore costs were less to service and generated a stable dues base.   The real crises could be the loss of that stability.

There may be some states and isolated cities where certain jobs between private and public sector are equivalent when one measures both pay and benefits, but this has been an exhaustively studied situation, and the notion that there is a significant public sector advantage is largely a politicians’ mirage.  A good example often in the news is the mismatch of pay for public sector nurses compared to those in the private sector where devotion to the job is about all that holds the workers.  Lower wage workers in the service sector have increasingly been contracted out in past economic crises and are tit for tat with the private sector if not below.

The advantages argued in the past for public sector pensions are also disappearing, especially as the reports of public underfunding build up in piles these days.  In fact what is often ignored is that some of these same pensions substitute for social security, so that if they are degraded public workers could find themselves up a terrible creek.

Contrary to what the right wing is arguing, public employees are not pampered and over paid.  The real issue is more likely “defunding” the unions which have been their protectors, especially the aggressive and politically powerful SEIU and AFSCME.  Greenhouse makes this point as well arguing that tactically forcing unions to spent more in defense would defang them in terms of political spending for 2012 federally and at the local and state levels.

This is a bad time for this fight, but there’s no reason to “blame the victim” — public employees — when this is just brass knuckle political war.  We might as well engage the battle on the real ground rather than the make believe world.