"We have a situation in which public-sector unions get jillions of dollars in dues, which they hand back to the politicians who then sweeten the pot for them in an unending circle." We assume Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels was talking about Democratic politicians in his remarks on "Fox News Sunday." It's Democrats who benefit from the political activity of unions, and it's no accident that Republican governors are taking on those unions in several states. But just because there's more than a little politics underlying these recent standoffs in the states, that's no reason to ignore some of the underlying fiscal issues.
For days, demonstrators filling the Wisconsin Capitol have protested Gov. Scott Walker's plan to rescind the collective-bargaining rights of state workers. And polls show that the public backs the protestors. Recent surveys by both Gallup and the New York Times find majorities opposed to reducing pay or benefits the state provides for government workers, with almost two-thirds rejecting any action that would take away some of the collective-bargaining rights of most public unions. But the governor is determined to press forward with his plan to strip the power of some workers to negotiate, even though the unions have now offered concessions in pay and benefits.
Walker's stance is fraught with political peril. At the local level, people don't see government workers as "nameless, faceless bureaucrats," as federal workers are meanly characterized. It's teachers or firefighters or police officers who are on the public payroll — people everyone knows and likes. Still, a handful of Republican governors are willing to court danger not just because they want to weaken the last healthy bastion of the labor movement — there are now more unionized government employees than private-sector workers — but, at least in some cases, because they have legitimate fiscal disasters facing them.
When many of us are paying more for health care and worrying about pension plans — not to mention job security — and when unions in private companies have been forced to give concessions, government unions have fought change. They don't have to worry about driving their employers out of business or overseas the way workers for Ford or GM do, so some dig in regardless of a state's ability to pay, arguing that a contract is a contract.
Governors of both parties in cash-strapped states have worked with the unions to address their money problems and to improve worker performance, with varying degrees of success. But the headline grabbers are choosing instead to demonize state and local government workers in the hopes of turning popular opinion against them. The drumbeat of commentary claiming that public-service employees make more than those in private companies has taken on the aura of gospel.
The truth is more complicated than that. Though compensation varies widely from state to state and from school district to school district, studies matching workers of comparable education and experience generally conclude that those in government make less. Those inconvenient facts don't neatly play into a story line that says state and local workers are living the good life while sucking the taxpayers dry.
It's a story line aimed at tearing down governments at every level by tearing down the people who work for them. But we need those people — not just the cops and firefighters, teachers, nurses, social workers and prison guards who make up the vast majority of state and local workers but also the folks at the federal level who send out the Social Security checks, guard the borders, and yes, collect the taxes.
And we need those workers to be smart and efficient and productive. That's why it's important to attract good people to government. How can the country do that if the public holds negative views of those jobs? So the politicians and their ideological acolytes in the media should stop their anti-public-service rhetoric.
But the unions also should stop providing such easy targets. Everyone has some story of an outrageous benefit enjoyed by a policeman or one of his family members. And even if many of those stories are apocryphal, the unfunded pensions carried on many state ledger books are not.
Former Georgia Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, who succeeded in creating a more responsive public workforce, told Time magazine: "Government is like a co-op. We are all owners and users, and we are all better off when it works." Words the Republican governors and their union adversaries should take to heart.