In 1968, 1,300 sanitation workers in Memphis went
on strike. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to support them. That
was where he lost his life. Eventually Memphis heard the grievances of
its sanitation workers. And in subsequent years millions of public
employees across the nation have benefited from the job protections
But now the right is going after public employees.
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Public servants are convenient scapegoats. Republicans would rather
deflect attention from corporate executive pay that continues to rise as
corporate profits soar, even as corporations refuse to hire more
workers. They don't want stories about Wall Street bonuses, now higher
than before taxpayers bailed out the Street. And they'd like to avoid a
spotlight on the billions raked in by hedge-fund and private-equity
managers whose income is treated as capital gains and subject to only a
15 percent tax, due to a loophole in the tax laws designed specifically
It's far more convenient to go after people who are doing the
public's work -- sanitation workers, police officers, fire fighters,
teachers, social workers, federal employees -- to call them "faceless
bureaucrats" and portray them as hooligans who are making off with your
money and crippling federal and state budgets. The story fits better
with the Republican's Big Lie that our problems are due to a government
that's too big.
Above all, Republicans don't want to have to justify continued tax
cuts for the rich. As quietly as possible, they want to make them
But the right's argument is shot-through with bad data, twisted evidence, and unsupported assertions.
They say public employees earn far more than private-sector workers.
That's untrue when you take account of level of education. Matched by
education, public sector workers actually earn less than their
The Republican trick is to compare apples with oranges -- 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; 48 percent of government workers do. Teachers, social workers,
public lawyers who bring companies to justice, government accountants
who try to make sure money is spent as it should be -- all need at least
four years of college.
Compare apples to apples and and you'd see that over the last fifteen
years the pay of public sector workers has dropped relative to
private-sector employees with the same level of education. Public sector
workers now earn 11 percent less than comparable workers in the private
sector, and local workers 12 percent less. (Even if you include health
and retirement benefits, government employees still earn less than their
private-sector counterparts with similar educations.)
Here's another whopper. Republicans say public-sector pensions are
crippling the nation. They say politicians have given in to the demands
of public unions who want only to fatten their members' retirement
benefits without the public noticing. They charge that public-employee
pensions obligations are out of control.
Some reforms do need to be made. Loopholes that allow public sector
workers to "spike" their final salaries in order to get higher annuities
must be closed. And no retired public employee should be allowed to
"double dip," collecting more than one public pension.
But these are the exceptions. Most public employees don't have
generous pensions. After a career with annual pay averaging less than
$45,000, the typical newly-retired public employee receives a pension of
$19,000 a year. Few would call that overly generous.
And most of that $19,000 isn't even on taxpayers' shoulders. While
they're working, most public employees contribute a portion of their
salaries into their pension plans. Taxpayers are directly responsible
for only about 14 percent of public retirement benefits. Remember also
that many public workers aren't covered by Social Security, so the
government isn't contributing 6.25 of their pay into the Social Security
fund as private employers would.
Yes, there's cause for concern about unfunded pension liabilities in
future years. They're way too big. But it's much the same in the private
sector. The main reason for underfunded pensions in both public and
private sectors is investment losses that occurred during the Great
Recession. Before then, public pension funds had an average of 86
percent of all the assets they needed to pay future benefits -- better
than many private pension plans.
The solution is no less to slash public pensions than it is to slash
private ones. It's for all employers to fully fund their pension plans.
The final Republican canard is that bargaining rights for public
employees have caused state deficits to explode. In fact there's no
relationship between states whose employees have bargaining rights and
states with big deficits. Some states that deny their employees
bargaining rights - Nevada, North Carolina, and Arizona, for example,
are running giant deficits of over 30 percent of spending. Many that
give employees bargaining rights -- Massachusetts, New Mexico, and
Montana -- have small deficits of less than 10 percent.