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Is Cutting Benefits For Public Workers Actually Wage Theft? Reframing the Right's Attacks On Unions

"Wage theft" has been a helpful frame for labor unions to fight for their workers' rights. Could it be applied to attacks on public workers' pensions--or Social Security?

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Media reporting on the pensions crisis discusses “broken promises” to public employees, but a pension is not a promise, it is a legal obligation. Failing to accurately define public employee pensions, and what cuts really mean, results in a lack of understanding among the general public about what pensions are and how they work. This creates a situation where sentiment against public employees generates support, or at least acceptance, of pension cuts, because people do not understand what is actually happening. Wage theft is something that has the potential to affect all employees, and tolerating it creates a slippery slope and makes it that much easier for the next step. Social Security cuts, for example, are also on the table.

Attacks on public employees are centered on the unions that advocate for them. Unionbusting measures are in the works in a number of states, at a time when public employees need unions more than ever. Union organizing is the only way to effectively combat issues like systemic pension cuts, because public employees do not have enough clout on their own to challenge losses to their benefits. Members of the public teeming with outrage as a result of poor media reporting might not see much to worry about here, but they should be concerned about what it means for them, even if they don't care about public employees.

Assaults on public employee unions are dangerous for all workers. These unions are a keystone of the labor movement and play a critical role in fighting for worker protections. The same protections accorded to public employees were once available to many more employees, before anti-union sentiment weakened private sector unions and made it more difficult for them to advocate for their members, and companies took advantage of the lack of union protections for other workers to flagrantly violate the law. The general public should be concerned about the implications for all workers, but the media narrative has effectively assured members of the public that they have nothing to worry about with the slew of attacks on public employees.

Justin Molito points out that the net effect of pension cuts is that “state workers are subsidizing corporate tax breaks...that's the most sinister part about it.” As states run out of money because they fail to collect corporate taxes, they turn to their own employees to make up the shortfall. Raids on state employee pension funds are not going to be the end of the line when it comes to desperate attempts to address looming budget problems.

s.e. smith is a frequent stirrer-of-pots, agitator, and writer. Follow smith on Twitter: @sesmithwrites.

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