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Right-Wingers Using Public Employees as 21st-Century Welfare Queens

The image of the overpaid public sector worker with fat retirement benefits offers a compelling storyline for the Right. But it's a complete fabrication.

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So the real “problem” with public sector employees, according to conservative economic beliefs, is that they can't be fired at will, they bargain collectively, and they have decent benefits and a more equitable distribution of income between the top earners and those toiling at the bottom. They also have smaller pay gaps between men and women and white workers and people of color and haven’t lost the guaranteed pensions that all but a handful of workers in the private sector have seen vanish over the past 30 years.

The Right has made great political progress getting Americans to ask the question: "How come that guy’s getting what I don’t have?" It’s the crux of the politics of grievance. Progressives need to get Americans to ask a different question: "What’s keeping me from getting what that guy has?" At least part of the answer is the Right’s decades-long assault on private sector workers’ ability to organize.

Privatization as Union-Busting

While the federal workforce has been relatively stable, even increasing in size slightly in the past year, state and local workers have been getting creamed in this recession. Fed Reserve Chairmen Ben Bernanke estimated that states and localities had laid off a quarter million workers since 2007. According to a Labor Department report, state and local governments beat every sector in terms of the number of workers laid off this summer. And, as the conservative Washington Times noted, “the troubles at the state and local levels promise to be a fixture for some time to come.”

With states and localities feeling an unprecedented budget crunch, the New York Times business section enthusiastically reported that a “class war” is breaking out over government pensions. “The haves,” wrote Ron Lieber, “are retirees who were once state or municipal workers” and now enjoy guaranteed pensions.

The have-nots are taxpayers who don’t have generous pensions. Their 401(k)s or individual retirement accounts have taken a real beating in recent years and are not guaranteed. And soon, many of those people will be paying higher taxes or getting fewer state services as their states put more money aside to cover those pension checks.

As economist Paul Krugman notes, state and local employees’ pensions represent just 6 percent of non-federal public sector spending (and when combined with wages, their take still represents only around a third of state and local budgets). Krugman, like Dean Baker, concluded that the public pensions-scare is little more than “a phony issue.”

And there’s another aspect to the story that’s rarely analyzed in news reports of budget shortfalls: while local governments are slashing their payrolls, they’re also outsourcing many of the functions they once performed to private contractors. In some instances, the same employees get hired to work the same gigs for the contractors, but without the job security, health care and retirement benefits they once enjoyed, and without the union representation.

The New York Times reported this week that a Maryland software company that has expanded into managing libraries in Tennessee, California, Texas and Oregon, has grown “into the country’s fifth-largest library system.” Frank Pezzanite, a co-founder of the company, LSSI, was straightforward about the private company’s “advantage,” saying, “Pensions crushed General Motors, and it is crushing the governments in California.” According to the Times, “While the company says it rehires many of the municipal librarians, they must be content with a 401(k) retirement fund and no pension.”

Another article that appeared in the Times business section in July was even more exuberant in reporting that the town of Maywood, California, had fired all of the city’s employees and outsourced their jobs.

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