The Right-Wing Zombie Lie About Public Workers That Just Won't Die

With the new year, we've seen a new round of attacks on working people. Just this week, Arizona Republicans introduced a bill attacking public workers that makes Wisconsin's look mild by comparison. And just in time to add fuel to the fire, the Congressional Budget Office released a study this week on government employees' earnings that has the Right buzzing – and even some progressive pundits repeating the myth that government workers are “overpaid.”

When it comes to wages and benefits, those government workers have unions to thank for their good fortune. The CBO notes that around 21 percent of the federal workforce is unionized, as opposed to the 8 percent of the private sector that enjoys union protections. Longtime organizer and senior fellow at the Citizen Engagement Lab Matt Browner-Hamlin pointed out to AlterNet that the private sector labor movement has been decimated by decades of concerted attacks, and indeed in the last year we've seen moves both successful and unsuccessful (Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio) to curtail the power of public sector unions on the state level.

And yet the pundit class seems entirely to miss the point. The Atlantic's Jordan Weissman delivered a typically glib read of the study, writing “The upshot: Federal pay might be too high overall, and it's probably not getting us a better government.” This, he said, is “more or less” the finding of the CBO study. That's actually a massive overstatement, and in the case of the “better government,” almost entirely an ideological read.

Browner-Hamlin said, “Pitting private sector workers against public sector workers is straight class warfare. Rather than helping lift private sector workers up to the salary and benefits public workers have, the effort is to pull public workers down to the depressed levels of their non-unionized, underpaid and un-benefited private sector peers.”

He continued, “It's much more beneficial for elites to have the 99% fight against itself for scraps than look at the source of their problems above them.”

The CBO's findings were much more complicated than Weissman's simplistic analysis would suggest. While federal employees with no more than a high school diploma made 21 percent more per hour—including their benefits—than private-sector employees of approximately the same level of education, those with a bachelor's degree were approximately equal, and federal workers with a doctorate or professional degree made 23 percent less per hour than their private sector colleagues.

But you won't catch too many pundits wondering if private-sector workers with advanced degrees are overpaid. No, instead it's time once again to call for pay cuts at the bottom—Weissman argues that “as an efficient use of resources, the current setup doesn't make much sense.” In other words, he thinks we should slash wages on the less-educated workers to be able to pay those at the top more money.

Why the obsession once again with cutting compensation for the working class?

“I was somewhat surprised that the initial reaction to the CBO study focused so heavily on the fact that federal workers with less education earn more in the public sector than their counterparts in the private sector,” Mark Price, labor economist at the Keystone Research Center, told AlterNet. “We probably owe the focus to the fact that the cover of the CBO report is the graphic comparing wages and benefits by educational attainment.”

Price notes that the fact that public workers make more, at the low end of the pay scale, than private sector workers isn't exactly news, even if it is providing grist for the class war mill right now. John Schmitt at the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that state and local public sector workers earn just below 6 percent more than comparable workers in the private sector—and women in the public sector make 7.4 percent more than those in the private sector. But when he adjusted for experience and education, Schmitt found that overall, public workers actually made about 4 percent less than private sector workers. But instead of trumpeting the fact that the public sector provides a way for women and less-educated people to make better wages, have decent benefits, and support their families, the (white male) pundit class sees this as a negative, that those higher wages should be sacrificed in order to raise the pay of those who already make much more.

“For decades public sector unions negotiated deals which reduced the cost to taxpayers by getting increased health and retirement benefits in lieu of higher salaries,” Browner-Hamlin said. “Targeting them now for being out of step with our essentially unorganized private sector workforce not only requires that we ignore contractual negotiations of the past, but that we forget that the path to reducing the compensation of private sector workers was a deliberate one, orchestrated by the very same types of greedy ideologues who are now attacking public workers.”

Weissman gives a passing nod to the idea that all workers should make a decent living, writing, “It's great that the federal government is providing livable wages to workers, and their families, who would probably have a tough time of it in the private sector.” But he ignores the history of struggle that won those workers their decent wages and benefits, and also the hits that private sector workers have taken over the past 30 years. Price pointed out that along with the decline in unions in the private sector, the falling purchasing power of the minimum wage and the decline in manufacturing, which used to be a way that less-educated workers could have a middle-class job, have contributed to drive down wages for most people.

“What the CBO study and most other studies of public sector pay reveal is not that the pay systems in government are broken but that middle-class jobs are disappearing from the private sector,” Price said.

Meanwhile on the high end, Price notes that more educated workers stay in the public sector, often, because they are "mission driven"--they are committed to their jobs because they believe in them, not simply because they can make money. While Weissman and Kevin Drum at Mother Jones seem to think that, as Drum puts it, the federal government needs to “compete better for top-level managers and other professionals,” by paying more and that the government would be more efficient as a result, they seem to ignore the idea that paying low-wage federal workers less might make those workers that much less efficient as well. A raise for the workers at the top would have less real impact on their lives than a cut for those at the bottom.

Price also pointed out that the relative equality in pay in the public sector actually helps with morale for all workers. “To take a counter example from the private sector like Apple computers; they couldn't possibly maintain company morale and productivity if they directly employed manufacturing workers in Cupertino under the same pay and working conditions that allegedly prevail in their contracted factories in China,” he said. “Workers have a sense of fairness that if violated can often undermine productivity. This is the chief reason human resource departments in private companies discourage employees from sharing with one another information about their pay levels.”

It's not just pay equality that is greater in the public sector. The gender gap, as noted above, is less for public workers, and the racial pay gap is also smaller. (Public sector layoffs, for this reason, have hit women and people of color the hardest in the last few years of austerity—and have fallen hardest on workers without union protections, while union workers were more likely to retain their jobs, as Catherine Rampell at the New York Times noted recently.)

It's disturbing, then, that the response to a study on workers' wages should be to call for more inequality, not less.

The obsession with the idea that the private sector's wages are somehow natural and the result of the “invisible hand” of the marketplace, while the public sector is simply throwing away money, is ideological and the result of years of anti-government rhetoric.

Price pointed out:

“It is a view that assumes the degree of equality in the public sector is unnatural and that the degree of inequality in the private sector is natural. The fact is that neither is natural but the result of policy choices. Worse still, Weissman and Drum both assume that more inequality in the public sector would boost productivity. Several decades of rising inequality in the private sector have yet to produce a surge in economic growth greater than we experienced in the decades following 1945, when there was much less inequality.”

Pundits seem to love the idea that less-educated workers deserve to make less money, while the educated among us should be making more—perhaps because the pundit class itself tends to be educated and well-paid and want to believe that their own success is a matter of merit. Otherwise, why don't we see more of them making the argument that those well-paid high-school grads working for the federal government must be deserving of their higher wages the same way they assume that PhDs in the private sector deserve to be paid so well?

At a time when the economy remains stagnant because the average worker doesn't have enough money to spend, anyone arguing that wages should be cut at the bottom and raised at the top is missing the point. Those underpaid, highly educated workers that Drum and Weissman are so concerned about are doing just fine, while those overpaid uneducated workers are forming the base of our rapidly disintegrating middle-class.

“Rather than trying to balance budgets on the backs of the 99 percent, we should be finding ways to lift up private sector workers, increase their pay and benefits, and let them drive the growth of our economy again,” Browner-Hamlin said. 

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