The backlash against public employee unions

The Scott Walker victory in Wisconsin this week showed just how unpopular public employee unions have become in the US.

Nearly four out of ten voters who have a union member in their household still voted in favor of Walker, the Republican who shredded collective bargaining rights for public employee unions.

This is speculation, but I would bet you a cup of coffee that many of those “union households” who went Republican weren’t from families with ties to government work.

The reason? Public sector workers have continued to win contracts that bring solidly middle class benefits, while the rest of the unionized (and non-unionized) work force has seen sharp declines in wages and benefits.

Even within the labor movement there is growing tension over this disparity.

After all, a big chunk of those government worker wages and benefits aren’t paid by corporations or by rich folks’ income taxes.

They’re paid through property taxes, which is (depending on your point of view) either a perfectly fair flat tax or a really unfair regressive tax.

Whatever your political leanings, the result is that means middle- and working-class homeowners pay the same rate as the one percenters.

The result has been huge tax pressure on precisely those families who can least afford it, and on families who are seeing their own quality of life erode.  That is a formula for severe resentment.

And we’re seeing that conflict play out  here in the North Country and across the US.

In Democratic New York state, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s popularity soared after repeated confrontations with public sector unions.  Voters in relatively liberal California have also been voting eagerly to curtail pension benefits for public workers.

One interesting factor here is that a growing number of Democrats are leading the “fight” against public employees and their benefits.  This from the Wall Street Journal.

San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat elected in 2006, blamed cuts in city services such as library hours and police staffing largely on rising pension costs. … ‘Now that we are getting control of retirement costs, we can cautiously start to restore services,’ Mr. Reed said.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel — a former top Obama administration official — is also locked in a pitched fight with public sector workers.

This week, the Washington Post urged the leaders of public employee unions to heed these warning signs and come back to the bargaining table.

They would do better to engage governments in a good-faith effort to restructure and preserve public services for the long term. States and localities face genuine financial problems, and the unions share responsibility for them.

Interestingly, I head a similar message this week when I spoke to unionized workers at the Horace Nye nursing home in Elizabethtown, which was sold by the county on Monday as an effort to cut costs.

Shawna Barber, a nurse from Mineville, said there was strong support among employees talking with county leaders and accepting concessions.

“We tried to, we talked to the union about that. We were willing over there to give up anything we had to give up. And because this county’s a whole union, they would not let us do it,” she said.

Unions argue that these kinds of cuts reflect a race to the bottom in a society where income inequality between the wealthy one percent and the rest of us is emerging as a defining factor in public life.  There’s some real truth to this.

But sometimes political truth is far more powerful and immediate than statistical truth.

When people pay their property taxes every year, they don’t feel pinched by the rich and the super-rich.  When they see their services being cut, while paying more in taxes, they don’t blame Donald Trump or the Koch brothers.

They feel like they’re being fleeced by the teachers, prison guards and highway workers who live right next door and who are experiencing a significantly better quality of life.

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133 Comments on “The backlash against public employee unions”

  1. Walker says:

    Uh, Larry, the source is right there at the top– that blue there? That’s a link. It’s the source.

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  2. mervel says:

    I don’t honestly think the public sector needs to be unionized at all. The private sector is where unions have a huge role to play, I would be in favor of helping them organize a little better in the private sector and making it very hard if not impossible to organize the public sector. The point of a union was to garner more of the profits for labor, if you worked as a group you would have bargaining power and you could extract more of the benefits of the product that you make.

    A public union is not negotiating for a part of the profits, they are simply driving up the cost of government. We see in Wisconsin the perverse relationship that they have with government, don’t negotiate the way we like well we will get rid of you politically. It is the reason that FDR was so vehemently against public unions.

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  3. mervel says:

    So does it make sense that cops in a small village make more than professors at pretty good universities? Does it makes sense that public sector employees are taking taxes from people who on average make less than they make? Look at the average salary of St. Lawrence County, then look at the average salary of government employees in St. Lawrence County.

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  4. myown says:

    Mervel, so you don’t have to purchase gas, food or electricity? I envy you. And when you do happen to buy something how often do you think about what the CEO is paid or or what the employees are paid and how that affects what you are paying?

    But be sure to resent paying your taxes that allow teachers to educate our children. Good idea, let’s make that optional.

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  5. myown says:

    “Does it makes sense that public sector employees are taking taxes from people who on average make less than they make? Look at the average salary of St. Lawrence County, then look at the average salary of government employees in St. Lawrence County.”

    As I said above, the problem is low private sector wages. As I also said previously the economic pie is no longer being distibuted in a manner that supports middle class wages. We need private sector unions and tax policies that give workers a better slice of the economic gains in the US economy.

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  6. mervel says:

    Myown I certainly don’t resent paying taxes for our schools not at all. I have a problem paying for an 85,000 dollar police officer and a 125,000 to a school administrator who is administrating a entire district smaller than most high schools in Syracuse, yeah those are both way over priced. So what is my recourse? Can I choose to not pay my taxes?

    But I do choose what products to buy, I buy at the gas stations that have the best service and the lowest prices, I choose to buy a very small car, I do choose my energy consumption, I can choose to live off the grid, I can choose to buy heat with wood or buy energy from national grid or St. Lawrence Gas. That is the point, public goods are intrinsically different, where is my choice for a public good?

    But that is the way it is supposed to be, public good ARE different they won’t get produced in the private market and we need the government to do it. I don’t have any problem with that. My problem comes when public unions hold the public hostage for wages higher than the average taxpayer in the district they are taxing. I would be in favor of limiting public wages to match the people that they are serving. In general we need private unions not public unions. If the government does not pay enough there will be no applicants for the job that are qualified. We are not having any trouble right now recruiting public sector employees.

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  7. oa says:

    Larry said: “It is not due to emigration from the US.”
    And Larry, I didn’t say that it was. I was just injecting some information into the immigration debate. You said earlier on the thread: “The US remains the promised land for people seeking to live better lives.”
    It is not the only land serving this function, as you seem to imply. Lots of promised lands!
    But I still love America! Even more than you, Larry! And that is fact because I fervently believe it to be so!

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  8. myown says:

    Mervel you said, “I would be in favor of limiting public wages to match the people that they are serving.”

    But why not be in favor of doing all we can to raise the wages of working class people who are paying taxes. Private sector wages have stagnated for 30 years and now public sector wages look good. That is the opposite of 30 years ago when the reverse was true. We can and should reverse policies that have allowed America’s vast wealth to concentrate at the top at the expense of it’s low-income and middle class workers. We need stop pitting private sector workers against public sector employees and confront the real issues of income distribution inequality that has taken place the past 30 years.

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  9. Paul says:

    Walker, I was just saying that those higher tax rates will not do it. One thing the government could do is to change the tax code to get rid of loopholes that decrease what is collected. I would suggest we start with some of the tax reforms that Romney suqggests. This would be similar to some of the tax reforms during the Reagan years that improved what we collected in corporate income tax. This an area that you could find some agreement.

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  10. Paul says:

    Myown, I never said that I think that public sector employees are paid too much. In fact I said that I think they deserve fair pay and benefits. Some public sector employees are over paid. So are some private sector employees. In the private sector that is a problem for the folks that own the company. In the public sector that is everyones problem.

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  11. Paul says:

    Walker, you can also raise taxes on the upper income levels when the economy improves to deal with debt issues.

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  12. zeke says:

    Mervel, :”So what is my recourse? Can I choose to not pay my taxes?

    But I do choose what products to buy, I buy at the gas stations that have the best service and the lowest prices, I choose to buy a very small car, I do choose my energy consumption, I can choose to live off the grid, I can choose to buy heat with wood or buy energy from national grid or St. Lawrence Gas. That is the point, public goods are intrinsically different, where is my choice for a public good? ”

    You only pay school or land taxes if you choose to own or rent a place to live. Just as with car insurance. You only buy car insurance if you own a car. Paying state taxes, move out of the State. As you say you have a choice, just as you do with private sector. Now consider two wars in lands far far away from our shores. my only way to avoid paying for them is to stay below the threshold in the tax code. Man I wish George Bush and Dick Cheney would have let me keep more of my money cause I know how to spend it better than they did.

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  13. mervel says:

    Myown,

    I am for increasing everyone’s average wage and you are right, that IS the best solution.

    Alas though we have to deal with the reality right now we are living in. The decisions that must be made over the next three to five years in the North country dealing with how to fund effective schools and an effective public sector are going to have to be negotiated out between local taxpayers and the local public sector. Even if we had changes that helped increase wages it will take decades to happen, also we are at a point where much of what happens with our wages is out of our control, it is a product of international market forces and individual cultural choices that even the President has no power or control over. You can’t expect to have a high paid work force when 25% year in and year out of our youth don’t even graduate from high school.

    But I do think some of you have almost the same response as JDM, its like the public sector is NEVER wrong; its not different than the Right leaning guys saying the private market ALWAYS works and is the best.

    Sometimes the public sector is really screwed up and we as taxpayers have a right and a responsibility to demand change.

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  14. mervel says:

    I just want to add, that negotiating hard and looking at the realities of what we can afford to pay people is NOT bashing public sector employees.

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  15. myown says:

    Mervel I can’t help but think your prescription: “I would be in favor of limiting public wages to match the people that they are serving” would just enhance the race to the bottom. If teacher salaries go down and are lower than many other areas you are likely to get lower quality teachers. The other option is to cut teachers and reduce class size. But it is not unreasonable to expect the quality of education will go down under either scenario.

    If the high school dropout rate in St L county is 25 percent that is a huge problem and a major reason incomes are so low. That needs to be addressed and there are ways to do it. Some places give families a financial incentive to keep kids in school until they graduate. There are other options but the point is that issue has to be fixed or St L county will decline into a backwater with low incomes.

    Given the overall selfishness and Ayn Rand me-first attitude I see in so many politicians today you may be right that nothing will be done to counter the concentration of wealth and power to those that already have the most. We are the wealthiest nation on earth and it is very disturbing to see the immense disparity between poor and rich just getting worse as a result of political policies.

    Under the mantra of tax cuts and tax cuts while increasing obscene military spending we have reduced the capital available to help those on the lowest rung of the economic ladder. And their chances of climbing up the ladder are much less than 30 years ago, and of that in many other countries. But I won’t say we can’t turn it around and find the America that is generous and fair, where those most well off feel a responsibility to give back to the society that allowed them to be successful and where your neighbor’s condition is as important as your own.

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  16. Larry says:

    How is increased spending going to help lower the drop-out rate? We are now several generations into the culture of entitlement so many peple don’t understand the benefits of applying themselves in school or in vocational traiing – the government will provide, as they have always done. So many dollars have been wasted helping the lazy that there’s little left for those truly in need of help.

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  17. myown says:

    Larry says the poor get just what they deserve because they are lazy.

    OMG Larry, that is exactly what I am talking about – a level of selfishness that is divorced from reality and totally un-American. The deck has been increasingly stacked against lower and middle-class families. The American Dream now only applies to those who start on third base while the rest of us are trying to get to first base.

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  18. myown says:

    And if you don’t think there is a right-wing agenda against public employees check this out.

    http://www.alternet.org/newsandviews/article/945545/right_wing_media_spin_recent_vote_to_attack_all_public_pensions/#paragraph4

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  19. Larry says:

    Larry says the poor get just what they deserve because they are lazy.

    I did? myown, that comment is unworthy of you.

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  20. Walker says:

    Gee, Larry, what exactly did you mean by “We are now several generations into the culture of entitlement so many peple don’t understand the benefits of applying themselves in school or in vocational traiing – the government will provide, as they have always done. So many dollars have been wasted helping the lazy.”

    I have to say I read it pretty much as myown did. Oh, on re-reading, maybe you’re saying that the poor get more than they deserve; since they are lazy, they should get nothing. Is that closer?

    Hot debate. Like/Dislike Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

  21. mervel says:

    MYown that is the national drop out rate. Nationwide 25% of our kids don’t graduate, St. Lawrence county is actually lower than that. The largest public school system in the US, the NY public school system has a 50% dropout rate.

    How does that equate to higher wages?, Ever.

    We are not the wealthiest nation on earth that myth kind of has to stop.

    You seem frankly clueless about what is happening in our school districts up here and our tax rates which are the highest in the nation. This is real, I really support our school systems, they are NOT going to get any help from Albany, so what have they been doing? They simply lay off young teachers and keep the benefits for the older ones and classroom sizes increase. I am not against teachers at all, I love our teachers, but in this case the unions and the overpaid administrators have let our kids down.

    But frankly because of your inability to say anything but talking points you won’t look at real people in real schools. These unions in these cases are messed up, and they won’t change until taxpayers say enough we want you to reduce benefits and keep more teachers.

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  22. mervel says:

    There will be NO trouble recruiting good qualified teachers to fill these positions.

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  23. myown says:

    OK Mervel, good luck.

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  24. Larry says:

    Why not read it exactly as I wrote it? You ought to be able to handle that. In fact, I said nothing about the poor or whether or not they are lazy. You want to know why there is such a sharp divide in this country? It’s because of people – on both sides – like Walker and myown who are so enchanted by the sound of their own voice that they can’t hear anyone else, not to mention their nasty habit of telling others what they (the others) really meant instead of listening to what they said. Oh, the sound and the fury!

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  25. myown says:

    Larry said, “In fact, I said nothing about the poor or whether or not they are lazy.”

    Larry said, “So many dollars have been wasted helping the lazy that there’s little left for those truly in need of help.”

    Wow Larry you must be more delusional than I thought or you need to explain what you meant.

    Furthermore you have been presented specific data that refutes what you “know” from your ideological gut but you just dismiss it because you don’t like it. You obviously are going to believe what you want to regardless of the facts. It is kind of hard to have a productive discussion under those circumstances don’t you think?

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  26. Larry says:

    I’m biting my tongue. I dd not use the word “poor” in any sense in my original post. I did say that money has been wasted on the lazy but did not, nor would I ever, generally categorize poor people (even if I had been talking about them, which I was not) as lazy. Lazy cuts across all socio-economic levels. Happy now? Somehow, I doubt it.

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  27. mervel says:

    Well MyOwn we need more than luck! We need a true coming together of parents, administrators and the public unions to solve our problem which is unsustainable.

    As far as hiring new teachers, we could just hire the 50 in Canton we have put out of work the past two years, let alone newly minted teachers who can find NO work in the North Country. That part won’t be hard, the issue is coming together to find a solution that is not dependent on outside help, which is not coming.

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  28. mervel says:

    I realize that you are making a long term political point, which is fine, but it is from a practical sense, useless right now.

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  29. Ron Shirtz says:

    Targeting public unions alone distract from the big pensions and perks non-union local and state appointees and administrators rake in.

    If cuts and concessions are needed to be made, it should be done fairly and justly made across the board for ALL local and state employees, appointees, and elected officials, from the governor down to the most humble street sweeper. Union or non-union, doesn’t matter. Everyone should feel the pain equally, not just the public union employees.

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  30. Mike S. says:

    Unions don’t even support each other. I am a non union, but buy American. Why?, because this is what happens when you don’t. Schools and State workers parking lots look more like a Japanese car dealer lots. Take a look and see if you don’t notice the same thing. Ever been to DC, feels like a foreign country out on the beltway. Sure they are assembled in the US, but where does the $$ go?

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  31. stillin says:

    If it wasn’t for the union, every teacher that was disliked for ANYTHING, their looks, their political views, their friends, could be canned on the spot. Then the schools could hire anybody they wanted, cheaper. In fact, it would then be easier than it already is, for schools to hire their friends and families. Unions are critical to anybody who teaches for a living. There seems to be a fantasy out there that unions protect teachers from anything and anyone, not true. Soon though, there will be 12 step groups for teachers, just for the abuse they put up with from their own schools, their school boards, and the parents. Teachers NEED unions and tenure for that matter. Remember, schools have 3 years to watch a teacher, before they decide to keep one or not, based on whatever they want. Those two things, tenur and union, are about the only good things that go with teaching today.

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  32. mervel says:

    Tenure is a concept for professors who may publish research that challenges the powers that be, and thus to really get good research which must be free from influence you are provided tenure, that is the point of tenure.

    Tenure really has no place in primary education.

    I notice that you didn’t mention children being a good thing about teaching today, some people are in the wrong field.

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  33. myown says:

    But Mervel says he supports teachers – he just doesn’t want to pay them much or allow them to have any job security. What’s good enough for a low-income worker ought to be good enough for a teacher. Now that’s a practical plan – for the 19th century.

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