Convenient Scapegoat: Public Workers under Assault

Source: Joseph A. McCartin, Dissent, Vol. 58 no. 2, Spring 2011
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If partisan conservatives such as Morris and his friends were all that public sector unions had to worry about, the situation would be difficult enough. But a growing bipartisan consensus, which stretches from New Jersey’s Republican governor Chris Christie to New York’s Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo and includes mainstream publications such as the Economist and the Atlantic, seems to have concluded that states and municipalities have been too generous with their employees, and that union contracts are a prime cause of the recent surge in government budget deficits. There is increasing talk of trimming pensions, benefits, and salaries for public sector workers and enacting laws that curb union political influence. “At some point,” argues Christie, “there has to be parity between what is happening in the real world and what is happening in the public-sector world.” Such arguments clearly resonate with voters. Recent polls have found both a significant drop-off in public support for government-employee unions over the past year and a rising level of passion among union opponents.

Two widely shared misperceptions are helping to drive this shift of opinion. The first holds that public sector workers now earn more on average than their private sector counterparts, making them what Indiana’s Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, calls “a new privileged class in America.” The leading candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination have helped promote this view….The second perception is that collective bargaining contracts have been major contributors to the growing budget deficits of the states, a view promoted by Chris Edwards, the director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute….

…Whether the United States can emerge from the Great Recession to confront this massive long-range failure of the private sector to generate good jobs, reliable benefits, and rising incomes for the many will depend greatly on how well public sector unions are able to weather this perilous moment. With less than 7 percent of nongovernmental workers unionized, private sector unions no longer have the leverage to improve wages and benefits for those beyond their ranks. Thus, by default, public sector unions have become the single most effective social force capable of speaking out for a just economy that lifts the standards of all workers, public and private. To preserve their credibility and their ability to fight effectively for both their members and a fairer economy for all, the unions would be wise at this moment to show that they are prepared to make sacrifices where necessary, appropriate, and fair. In turn, all who seek a fairer economy have a stake in coming together to resist the radical effort to roll back public sector unionism that is now gaining ground.

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