5 Reasons Public Employees Make Such Tempting Political Targets


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.)

2. Employers' Duties to Public Pensions are Determined by… Employers

Even if they want to fight back, the legal avenues available to public employees are strictly limited, because their employers— primarily states and municipalities—define their own legal obligations to pension plans.

In the private sector, once employee benefits have been created, employers are somewhat constrained in how they handle their responsibilities. The Employee Retirement and Insurance Security Act, or ERISA, creates duties for employers who administer benefit plans. ERISA issues are among the most litigated in federal courts, because even seemingly mundane changes to benefits—changes to retirees’ ability to access their health plans, for example —can run afoul of the law.

But ERISA does not apply to public sector pension plans. Whereas private employer-administered plans must be funded at a certain level—and are often insured to a certain level of funding by the federal government—the duties of state employers to pension funds are defined by state law. In the economic boom days of the 1990s and 2000s, state and local governments often slowed or withheld their annual contributions to pension funds because they rosily projected perpetual surpluses. In the face of all historical evidence, they apparently assumed tax revenues and investment returns wouldn’t dip.

As it turns out, they didn’t dip. They plunged.

During the boom years public employees couldn’t do much to force politicians to keep funding steady. Because of laws that give legislatures the ability to skirt contribution requirements, states could avoid meeting their obligations while public employees were legally forbidden from suing their bosses to keep paying into the pension funds. In many states, pension contributions are defined by laws, not collective bargaining agreements. Even where they are defined by union contracts, states can pass laws unilaterally redefining the language without necessarily face legal consequences. When times were good, legislatures often got away with not funding pensions because they assumed a future of bountiful surpluses. But when tax revenues declined, politicians knew they could shortchange pension funds and face little or no real retributions for doing so.

3. Pensions Are All They’ve Got, and Employers Know It

Public employees aren’t typically covered by social security, so their pensions are not bargaining chips they’re willing to throw in the pot.

The Social Security Act (SSA), like most New Deal legislation and pretty much every government regulation of the economy since, was passed according to Congress’ Commerce Clause powers which means that those who aren’t engaged in “interstate commerce” are excluded. So government workers were excluded from coverage by the SSA. Legislative fixes of the subsequent 50 years allowed states to enroll their employees in Social Security, or for public employees to do so themselves. Nevertheless, many public employees do not enroll because their pension contributions are already taken from their checks weekly. Approximately a quarter of public employees—and higher in states with historically robust public employee retirement systems—do not participate in Social Security.

The practical effect is that public employees’ retirement security is entirely at the whim of politicians. That leaves them little room to bargain over health benefits, pay, workplace conditions, privatization schemes, and even their collective bargaining rights.

4. Public Employees Increasingly Come from Historically Marginalized Groups

Women and people of color are highly represented in public sector employment. Just as in other areas of public policy—reproductive rights, voting rights, criminal justice—these groups are the targets of unjust treatment. Together with their legal vulnerabilities, the fact of historical political marginalization makes public sector workers less risky political targets in times of economic upheaval. The recession of 2008 hit men harder than women, but men ended up filling most of the jobs created during the recovery.

Public sector employment, however, remained in sustained freefall as tax revenues cratered. Nearly three quarter of a million jobs were lost since 2009. Public sector jobs traditionally held by women have been targeted for elimination, particularly teaching jobs. (Nearly 75 percent of public school teachers are women.) Since the recession, more than 350,000 teachers have lost their jobs. According to Susan Feiner, a University of Southern Maine economist, the Washington, D.C.-based National Women's Law Center reports that,

While women represented 57 percent of the public-sector work force at the end of the recession, women lost the vast majority--79 percent--of the 327,000 jobs cut in this sector between July 2009 and February 2011….

The figures for African-American workers tell a similar story. Between 2008 and 2010, 21 percent of black workers were employed in the public sector (at the federal, state or local level), compared to 16 percent of non-black workers. One study found that while black workers represented about 13 percent of state and local public sector employment, 20 percent of job losses in those areas were suffered by black workers. As many as 177,000 jobs were lost by black public workers, potentially representing billions in lost income.

Rather than going after public workers because of their supposed power, state legislatures seem instead to be localizing the pain of austerity among groups with less political power.

5. Undervaluing “Care Work”

Public employees may also be tantalizing targets for austerity measures because of the undervaluing of labor-intensive care work. When home healthcare, childcare, social work, eldercare, and education are paid it is often the government that foots the bill, particularly because the recipients are often those who can least afford private options. But whereas the loss of manufacturing and infrastructure jobs is endlessly lamented, care work remains somewhat invisible both in its execution and its elimination.

Yet care work is immensely valuable. The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston estimated that, in Massachusetts alone, unpaid care work amounted to $151.6 billion, the equivalent of 30 percent of the state’s GDP. When childcare workers, eldercare workers, or social workers are fired, the assumption is not that vulnerable people don’t need care, but that we expect someone to provide that care for free. That these services are traditionally provided by women is no coincidence. Centuries of free female labor kept our society together, but the economic value of that work is largely hidden from the conversation.

Ultimately, the fact remains that while low investment returns and tanking revenues have caused some accounting concerns for pensions, they remain relatively well funded—the unfunded liabilities are approximately 2 percent of total liabilities over the pay-out period. The benefits paid out are fairly modest, with about $24,000 the median—even in places like Detroit, where the recent bankruptcy filing was blamed in part on pension troubles. Public employees, by dint of their legal susceptibilities and historical marginalization are victims, not causes, of states’ current economic turmoil. Demanding that they accept responsibilities for those crises is backward.

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