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5 Reasons Public Employees Make Such Tempting Political Targets

Far from being wildly powerful, public employees are at the mercy of politicians and state legislatures.

Photo Credit: flickr: Gage Skidmore


Greedy public-sector workers, we are constantly told, are undermining America. Every level of American government is beset by a crippling "pension crisis," as states and cities face obligations they can never hope to meet, imposed by politically powerful public employee unions. These dastardly organizations have used their clout to protect their members even as taxpayers face cutbacks in services, private sector job insecurity, and Great Recession-depleted retirement savings.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who dared public employees to sue him, blamed “wildly out of proportion” retirement benefits for his state’s pension liabilities. During his oddball run for the presidency, Newt Gingrich proposed allowing states to go into a form of bankruptcy to give them leverage over recalcitrant and pampered government unions. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker targeted public employees as a budget measure, despite evidence that Wisconsin’s pension system was 97 percent funded.

But the obsession with public pension bloat is a recent phenomenon, a politically expedient way for politicians to avoid raising taxes by prying cost savings from a group with enough privilege to make a tempting target but not enough power to adequately defend them. As soon as investment returns and tax revenues start tanking, policymakers begin targeting public employees. It wasn’t until 2008 that cities like Chicago began to put together “pension commissions” to find ways to save money on public employee retirement benefits. In state after state, public employees have made massive concessions, but still their jobs have been eliminated or privatized. Their very right to collectively bargain has been undermined—or eliminated.

Far from being wildly powerful and out of control, public employees are the target of politicians precisely because they are uniquely at the mercy of politicians and state legislatures. They make convenient targets because of their legal and historical vulnerability. Here are five reasons government workers have become popular political punching bags.

1. Public Employees’ Rights are Determined By…Their Employers

Public employees’ benefits are ripe for the plucking because their very ability to fight back is at the mercy of their employer.

If you work in the private sector—basically anywhere but for a government body—then your rights to collectively bargain or form a union are defined and protected by the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRA guarantees workers’ rights to act in concert for their “mutual benefit and protection,” guarantees a right to elect to join a union, protects workers from retaliation by their employer for concerted activity, and, guarantees a right to strike. Half a century of unfriendly court decisions and hostile presidential administrations have greatly dulled its bite, but the NLRA continues to act as a comprehensive regulatory scheme for private sector workers.

For public employees rights on the job are defined by state statute. Their employer—state legislatures and executive agencies—create, modify, and enforce their rights. Even in a deep-blue state like Illinois, public employees had no legal right to collectively bargain until the mid-1980s. In the vast majority of states, public employees do not have the right to strike. The iconic images of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marching with the Memphis sanitation workers in 1968 were a direct result of this quirk of labor law: as government employees, the Memphis sanitation workers could be subjected to all type of abuse and had no legal right to organize for better conditions.

Public employees have no rights except those their employers explicitly grant them. Even then the areas they can bargain over are defined by the employer: The boss must agree to what will be bargained for before the workers can legally demand it. The state defines what are “mandatory” and “permissive” subjects of bargaining. This was an issue in the Chicago Teachers Union strike late last summer, where the city threatened an injunction against the union’s strike on the grounds that they were striking over a “permissive” area of bargaining—specifically, teacher evaluations and the rehiring of fired teachers. (Typically only “mandatory” bargaining subjects are strikeable.)

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