Public-sector workers a target in recession politics

At Politico, Maggie Haberman and Ben Smith have a good piece on the “perfect storm” ginning up politicians’ opposition to public-sector workers. Firefighters and teachers sometimes earn more than the average American, and sometimes benefit from pricey pensions and union backing. With the public angry and states slashing budgets, a bipartisan group of political leaders is attacking the once sacrosanct class.

They’re the whipping boys for a new generation of governors who, thanks to a tanking economy and an assist from editorial boards, feel freer than ever to make political targets out of what was once a protected liberal class of teachers, cops, and other public servants….

[New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie] is merely the most florid voice for a calculated, national effort to fundamentally reshape the debate on the labor costs that account for the bulk of government spending at every level. And at the core of the shift is a perception among many political leaders that public anger at civil servants is boiling over.

“We have a new privileged class in America,” said Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who rescinded state workers’ collective bargaining power on his first day in office in 2006. “We used to think of government workers as underpaid public servants. Now they are better paid than the people who pay their salaries.”

As the story points out, the opposition to unionized public-sector workers seems to be the product of worries about issues mostly outside of the employees’ control. Bus drivers aren’t to blame for the fact that their pensions were mismanaged, or that falling property and income taxes have forced states to slash their budgets. Nor does it seem useful to castigate them for demanding competitive wages.

“It’s outrageous to blame a librarian — to blame a fireman for the financial mess that we find this country in,” the president of the American Federation of State County, and Municipal Employees, the largest national public workers union, Gerard McEntee, said. “We are the scapegoats in the states.”

That seems right to me: The pension crisis is a crisis, and in the future, state employees should probably expect much less generous long-term pension plans. But no need to blame current public sector workers themselves. And the debate over the promotion and compensation of teachers is important, but orthogonal to the issue.

Moreover, I worry that this view of government employees as overcompensated and entitled will provide political cover for broader layoffs — layoffs that are coming as the state budget crisis peaks this year and next, and will be detrimental in terms of city services and in terms of the recovery. More lay-offs mean more unemployed people competing for jobs and less household consumption. Right now, Democrats should be worried about keeping people employed, not criticizing jobs with good benefits.

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Annie Lowrey

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