Anti-worker and anti-union politicians and business groups would have you subscribe to the notion that unionized public employees have caused state deficits to explode when, in fact, there is no relationship between states with unionized public servants and states with colossal deficits. These politicians and groups, more specifically the “Right,” are strategically capitalizing on severe economic conditions, mostly caused by corporate greed, to press their version of class warfare. The strategy is simple and effective — divide and conquer the working class by pitting private-sector workers against public servants. It is a much more beneficial scenario for top income earners and wealth holders to have working people fighting against one another — arguing over whose income and benefits are more modest — than to have workers stand together in outrage that the top 1 percent are now raking in more of our nation’s wealth than at any time since the years leading up to the Great Depression, and paying lower taxes to boot.
Public employees are the first to undergo these attacks because it is much easier to attack people who are doing the public's work — sanitation workers, police officers, firefighters, teachers, social workers, prison guards, inspectors — by characterizing them as “fat cats” who are smoking cigars rolled with your tax-dollars while hamstringing federal and state budgets than it is to disclose that there is a revenue problem caused by continuous unfunded tax cuts. In reality, public servants are hard-working people who provide the essential services we all depend upon. According to the Economy Policy Institute (EPI), after accounting for factors including level of education, hours worked and non-cash compensation, on average, full-time state and local employees are undercompensated — compared to "otherwise similar private-sector workers." In fact, private sector workers earned average annual wages of $55,132 — $6,061 more than the $49,072 earned by public sector workers.
Actually, comparing public and private sector worker wages is like comparing apples to oranges. However, the Right is doing a very good job of convincing the public that apples are oranges. They constantly compare the average wage of public employees with the average wage of all private-sector employees. But only 23 percent of private-sector employees have college degrees as compared to 48 percent of government workers. Teachers, social workers, prosecuting attorneys, engineers and accountants all need at least four years of college and governments typically have very little need for many of the low-wage service occupations that exert significant downward pressure on the average wages of the private sector, such as retail, food service and agriculture.
Despite the common rhetoric, public employees don't have overly-generous pensions either. After a career with a yearly salary averaging less than $45,000, a newly-retired public employee can expect to receive an annual pension of $19,000. Only someone who is attempting to manipulate the public’s opinion of public servants in an adverse way would call such a scanty pension overly generous and it is important to note that only a small portion of that $19,000 is shouldered by taxpayers. This is because public employees typically contribute a portion of their salaries into their pension plans during their working years. Taxpayers are obligated for only about 14 percent of their employees’ retirement benefits. It is also a fact that many public workers aren't covered by Social Security, so their government employer isn't contributing 6.25 percent of their pay into the Social Security fund as private-sector employers are required to do.
The true issue isn’t overpaid public servants, but rather who can the right wing propaganda machine make out as a scapegoat for a sluggish economy so taxpayers won’t focus their disgust where it belongs — Wall Street and laissez-faire legislative culture. Unjustly, the blame falls on those working-class people who have jobs when jobs are scarce. With this, the battle cry of the day becomes “sacrifice,” but, of course, not for all Americans. To the contrary, the Right insists that the rich should not sacrifice at all; they should enjoy even larger tax cuts that expand public-sector deficits. That means fewer public services, and even more pressure on the wages and benefits of public employees. Only average workers, both in the public and the private sectors, are being called upon to sacrifice, while the wealthiest one percent benefit from a better deal than they had prior to the economic disaster they caused — and, that’s some deal.
Austin W. Keyser is the Business Manager of I.B.E.W. Local 575 and the Secretary/Treasurer of Shawnee District AFL-CIO Council. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.