Why Is the Public Sector Under Attack?

As the French continue mass protests to keep their job benefits and the retirement age at 60, here in the U.S., government employees are under attack for collecting big salaries and pension checks while the rest of us suffer.

Press play to listen to Your Call with Rose Aguilar: “Why is the Public Sector Under Attack?”:

Press play to listen to Your Call with Rose Aguilar: “Why is the Public Sector Under Attack?”:

In June, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels told Politico that the “new privileged class in America” is government employees, who “are better paid than the people who pay their salaries.”

This week, the San Francisco Examiner’s conservative editorial page ran a piece called, “Public employee unions versus working Americans.” It asserts that government employee unions take from the private sector to further enrich and empower themselves and their political allies. “Every dollar paid to a unionized government worker was taxed away from somebody who earned it in the private sector.”

David, a firefighter working in San Francisco, says it’s interesting to go from being a “blue collar worker to all of a sudden now publicly perceived as part of the ‘haves.’”

In response to claims by people like Governor Daniels about overcompensation, David asks, “How do you know unless you’ve walked in those shoes? As somebody that has run into burning buildings more than a few times, I challenge people to say that we’re overcompensated. Try to go in there and see how well they’d do under those circumstances.”

Another Your Call listener, Sheila, writes, “I am a retired public librarian. Once again, we are being divided with intent. It is what has been done in this country for over 100 years. Keep the workers divided so the corporate biggies can continue to live off all of us. We either stand in solidarity with one another or we all go down in flames. I’m betting on solidarity forever.”

Attacks against public workers, especially those who are unionized, are nothing new, but they reach new levels during economic crises, and they’re leading to major policy changes.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, over the past three years, 38 states have passed legislation to change their state-run retirement systems. House Republican Minority Leader John Boehner supports raising the retirement age to 70.

On Your Call, we’re talking about the attacks against public sector workers. Are any of the claims about pay and pensions warranted? Where are the facts?

According to the Center for Housing Policy, in high-priced cities, the people who provide the bulk of vital services, including teachers and firefighters, can’t afford to live in the communities they serve. Even in moderately-priced areas, full-time workers pay an excessive portion of their income on housing. Most school bus drivers can’t afford to pay rent for a standard two-bedroom apartment.

A recent study co-authored by one of today’s guests, Rutgers University professor Jeffrey Keefe, found that “public workers in California earn seven percent less on average than private sector employees, but make about the same amount after benefits and other compensation are factored in.”

“There’s no significant difference between public and private sector workers in California. It’s basically a wash, “ said co-author Sylvia Allegretto, deputy chairwoman of UC Berkeley’s Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics.

Nonetheless, the AFL-CIO’s James Parks writes: “The people who teach our children, protect us from crime, put out fires in our homes and make sure our water is clean are under attack. Conservative pundits and politicians across the country are using the economic crisis to attack public employees and portray them as privileged compared with everyone else.”

What do the facts tell us about government employees?


Jeffrey Keefe is a professor of Labor and Employment Relations at Rutgers University and a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute. Jeffrey is co-author of the study, The Truth about Public Employees in California: They are Neither Overpaid nor Overcompensated. He joins us by phone from New Brunswick, NJ.

Mark Paul is a senior scholar at the New America Foundation and is co-author of California Crack-up: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It. He has written for the LA Times about the debate over pension disparity between the public and private sector. He joins us by phone from Sacramento.

Ken Tray is a social studies teacher at Lowell High School and political director of the United Educators of San Francisco, a teachers union.

Rose Aguilar is the host of “Your Call,” a daily call-in radio show on KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco and on KUSP 88.9 FM in Santa Cruz. She is author of “Red Highways: A Liberal’s Journey Into the Heartland.”