Public Employees vs. the Public Will

Government workers get more powerful as they grow less popular.

“Many state and local governments have made the mistake of courting the votes of public employees by fattening salaries and benefits, all the time imagining that pension-fund investments could only go up,” the tirade warns us. With tales of “lavish retirements for relatively youthful public servants” illustrating the “ugly…issue of public-employee pay and benefits,” the jeremiad estimated that state governments are anywhere from $1 trillion to $3 trillion short of their public pension commitments.

This end-of-days screed did not appear at, nor was it printed in folio, stapled together, and handed out at a Tea Party. It’s a cover story published this summer in Time magazine. 

The word is out. It is now mainstream opinion that public employee salaries, benefits, and pensions are crippling state governments from coast to coast. When a group of comedians performed a “2010 Public Employee of the Year Awards” sketch—wherein lumpen freeloaders compete at Harrah’s in Atlantic City for the title of “Surliest and Least Cooperative State Employee” and so on—the performers were not the after-dinner entertainment at FreedomFest but the Not Ready For Prime Time venerables of Saturday Night Live. The sketch died. The rage lives on.

In 2009, the Gallup research group reported that for the first time in 70 years of polling, a majority of Americans opposed labor unions. An April Pew study showed that favorable ratings for unions had plummeted from 58 percent in 2007 to 40 percent in 2010. In the same month, the Republican research group Resurgent Republic found more than two-thirds opposition to current levels of compensation for government employees.

This discontent is not the sort of generalized outrage that stops short of a willingness to shed blood. Rasmussen Reports in July noted that 69 percent of its respondents would not be willing to pay more taxes in order to avoid layoffs of state workers. A mere 19 percent were willing. (This is particularly surprising because just three months earlier, Rasmussen had found higher support for public-sector unions, at 53 percent, than for private-sector unions, at 49 percent.) At the National Education Association’s July confab in New Orleans, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel declared that “our members face the most anti-educator, anti-union, anti-student environment that I have ever experienced.”

Yet none of the hullabaloo has amounted to a hill of beans against the taxpayer-funded power and advantages public workers have amassed. Those remain in place, and it is getting harder than ever to challenge them. When a handful of San Franciscans including the City by the Bay’s public defender mounted a ballot measure that would require city employees to increase contributions to their own retirement accounts, the unions went from coffee break to hot action in mere moments. Local labor leaders urged Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to yank federal business contracts from one of the initiative’s backers, while a city supervisor tried to cut more than a million dollars from the public defender’s budget.

In those places where reforms to taxpayer pension commitments have been succeeding, it is usually because the stakes are so small. Michigan is trying to encourage education burnouts to retire by allowing teachers to increase the multiplier that determines the size of their pension, while requiring teachers to contribute more toward their retiree medical benefits. But under pressure from the Michigan Education Association, the state has also placed charter school teachers into its troubled defined benefit plan, and it failed to make a permanent reduction in benefits for new hires. The result, as Jack McHugh noted at his Michigan Capital Confidential blog, is that costs may actually increase under the reform.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has done somewhat better, extracting small but real compromises from a handful of public employee unions in recent contract negotiations.  And in New Jersey, which has the highest property taxes in the country and a deficit that tops $11 billion, Gov. Chris Christie has become an improbable folk hero for his implacable campaign against the state’s teachers union. For his pains, Christie has endured a level of personal vituperation (aimed mainly at his fat physique) that seems uncivil even in a state never known for its warmth or charm.

Perhaps these small struggles are part of a glass-half-full story, though none of the reforms come close to plugging even half of the gaping commitments states have made to public workers. But there’s another reason to worry at the federal level. 

In 21 states, collective bargaining by public employees is either banned or somewhat restricted. If the massive tribute governments pay to their employees is to be reduced, more states will need to follow this lead. But those 21 holdout states would be forced by the federal government to grant public workers collective bargaining rights under the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act, a bill long sought by labor that as of this writing looks likely to pass the Senate with bipartisan support.

Grassroots uprisings have a way of petering out before they actually change anything. It’s heartening that everybody’s grandmother is now aware of the public pension problem and that we can joke darkly about the long lobbying arm of public employees. But while power politics yields immediate results, a realignment of public opinion can take a generation to have an effect. And the states are broke now. 

Tim Cavanaugh ( is a senior editor at reason.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Suki||

    Down with Big Union!

    Good morning reason.

  • Tim||

    Yer two minutes late.

  • Drax the Destroyer||

    So where is Alice Bowie claiming that if we let these schlubs get fired, they'll take to the streets in armed, angry, drunk, raping, murderous mobs because they can't retire at 55? Somehow, I don't think that helps their case any more. It's mob-style extortion.

  • DG||

    She's working her cutthroat up or out Wall St. job.

  • cynical||


  • ||

    Doesn't mean it won't happen. Seriously, as the economy gets worse, and governments start reducing benefits to the entitlement junkies and public payroll leeches riots are a natural result.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Good. The riots are going to happen anyway, let's get 'em going.

  • Drax the Destroyer||

    I don't have a problem with the inevitability of riots. I have a problem with people using it as an excuse to keep the leeches tamed through "employment" by filching our wallets. Despite the reality of violent riots, I welcome them as a sign that this shit does not work. Plus seeing unruly fat-assed mobs full of former bureaucrats get eviscerated by the police forces they built up would drive the lesson home further. And it would be hilarious from a very misanthropic viewpoint (i.e. mine).

  • Mr. FIFY||

    Of course, Team Red will blame Team Blue for starting the riots, and vice-versa.

    What I want to know is, who will be the first up against the wall when the revolution comes?

  • cynical||

    Bring it on.

  • ArbutusJoe||

    The Ruskies are stepping up to the problem:

    Let's top them! USA! USA! USA!

  • Hu Jintao||

    Russia plans to slash 100,000 bureaucrat jobs by 2013

    Meh. China plans to slash 100,000 bureaucrats by 2013.

    PRC! PRC! PRC!

  • Tommy Friedman||

    Boy, if only we could put that kind of efficiency to work here in our own government....

    *wistful sigh*

  • Ayn_Randian||

    So Communist and former-Communist nations are cutting government jobs, but the freedom-loving USA is piling them on?

    Where's Warren? I think we need his Trademarked Phrase right about now.

  • Johnny Longtorso||

    Where's Warren? I think we need his Trademarked Phrase right about now.


  • Mr Whipple||

    The NJ education system is a bit strange. The teachers are employees of the local school district, but the state provides the pension. Property taxes go to the local municipality, while the state provides "property tax relief" to seniors and certain individuals, which changes from year to year, it seems. I'm not sure if the municipalities contribute the teacher's pension fund, in part or whole, or if it is all paid for by the state. This separation of funding, I believe, is a major part of the problem.

    Here's something I know for sure, regarding basic employees of the State. 25 years ago, state worker salaries were considerably less than in the private sector. I was working in construction, back then, and I looked into applying for a job at a state run institution. The job paid about $7.50/hr for a carpenter, while the private sector was paying 10 or 11. the difference, of course, was made up for in benefits and pension. Back then, people didn't work for the state for the pay, rather they worked for the retirement. That was the trade-off. A couple years ago, I looked into the same position and found that the salary had increased to be at least equal to the private sector, plus the benefits. This leads me to believe that the problems are not necessarily in the pension, but the salary. There is no trade-off, anymore. State workers now get the best of both worlds, in NJ.

  • ||

    Since the pension amount is driven by the salary, the higher salaries are what is driving the pensions broke. You are right. It used to be a fair deal for both sides. The employees got good benefits, security and retirement but took lower pay. The government got an affordable workforce. Now it is completely out of whack. The governments are going to go broke and the employees are going to end up with nothing. It is just the auto industry all over again. Wherever unions get large and powerful, the inevitably loot the employer and ruin the system.

  • MNG||

    Every employee should try to get as much compensation as they can without killing the goose so to speak. Unions make it better for the employee to do this, but who among is so goofily altruistic that you don't seek the highest compensation for yourself possible that won't kill your job? WTF?

  • ||

    Who among us wouldn't loot the government and steal if only we had the chance. Yes, people will steal and destroy the golden goose if tempted. And when you are the police or the teachers and can have a union spend big money to destroy all comers in local elections, that temptation is real. And when the golden goose has the force of law to collect money, the temptation gets really high.

    That is why public employees should not be allowed to unionize. There is nothing these people can do that you won't defend is there? I would like to hear you explain something that you think would be an example of a public employee union going too far.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    "It is just the auto industry all over again. Wherever unions get large and powerful, the inevitably loot the employer and ruin the system."

    It's a lot easier to agitate your current employer than it is to start up your own business. There's a reason the auto unions never actually ran an auto company until the government gift-wrapped GM for them last year.

  • WTF||

    You called? I have no problem with unions trying to get as much as possible....or employers firing them!

  • cynical||

    But with businesses, there's usually someone on the other side of the negotiating table who knows their organization will fail if they get a bad deal. Governments don't fail, they just fuck over taxpayers a little more, so there's no real bargaining going on.

    Besides, pubsec unions are, by their very nature, contrary to the public interest. They should be banned, at the Constitutional level to prevent anyone from getting ideas.

  • adam||

    They should do away with the pensions and job protections, and instead offer salaries that are commensurate with the same work in the private sector. The pensions and job protections aren't a good deal for the taxpayer because they encourage lazy, unmotivated, and risk-averse people to take up public employment.

  • ||

    The problem with that is that the government is so political. We used to have such a system in the 19th Century. There, a new President would come in and basically fire everyone in the government and put in his own people.

    It sounds great to say "lets get rid of the job security". But what about when a bunch of religious nuts take over a school board and fire all of the teachers who won't tow the lion as they say? Do we really want a government where all the Dems get fired when the Republicans take over and vice versa? Make no mistake that is what we would get.

  • pmains||

    You realize that we would have been the people voting for your imagined, "religious nuts," yes? You're not imagining a Latin-American-style coup or something of that nature?

    While there are measures we can put in place to increase accountability without increasing partisanship (such as making continued employment conditional on not being in the bottom quintile performance-wise), the idea of purging our bureaucrats every few election cycles seems worth the cost of partisanship.

  • ||

    "Tow the Lion" has to be my favorite malaprop ever.

    I think you were looking for "toe the line."

  • ||

    as a public employee in WA state (who does not work for the state), our system is the same. LEOFF-II is the retirement system for pretty much all cops in the state EXCEPT state cops (WSP). But it's run on the state level. it's one of those "high 5 systems" where pension payments are based on a formula applied to your 5 highest paid consecutive years. that formula makes no sense to me. it creates perverse incentives to load up on OT for a specific 5 yr period.

    personally, as a libertarian, i prefer to self-direct my investments and for retirement. and i do ... with my roth IRA and my 403(b) deferred comp plan (I can invest up to 1/2 in my own stock picks, the other 1/2 in mutual funds)

    but god knows, i'll take the pension too.

    to WA's credit, they did try to fix the system. the old LEOFF-I was ridiculously generous. LEOFF-II is far less so. but it's still generous and expensive for the state

  • tasteless bastard||

    Here is the SNL skit.

  • tasteless bastard||

    Holy shit look at her arms!

  • ||

    Totally unbelievable, the DMV lady didn't have those 14" fingernails.

    You know, the ones that make typing in your information maddeningly slow.

  • Rich||

    NEA President Dennis Van Roekel declared that “our members face the most anti-educator, anti-union, anti-student environment that I have ever experienced.”

    FTFY. Also, your current "anti" experience is just a warm-up for the real thing.

  • ||

    I love the "anti student" line. If you think we pay teachers too much and don't hold them accountable, you are "anti-student".

  • Almanian||

    But, but John - think of THE CHILDREN!!

  • Attorney||

  • Mr Whipple||

    I would love to see the Camden County GOP win, if for nothing more than to get rid of those corrupt bastards Sweeney and Norcross, or as he is better known, King George III. Norcross's brother is president of the AFL-CIO, and now a State Senator, even though he was only elected to the Assembly, and Steve Sweeney's brother is president of the West Deptford Iron Workers. Of course, King George III was never elected to anything.

  • Rich||

    Hey, while we await ML -- cynical raised a great question last night: Why isn't electioneering protected speech?

    Anybody (John?) have a serious answer?

  • ||

    It is. But, there is the "competing interest of fair elections". So that allows the government to keep people from electioneering near polling places. The idea is to keep gangs of thugs from showing up and harassing people as they vote. Like most things, the government has taken a valid point and driven it into the ditch. So, at least according to that post, you can't wear a t-shirt with a campaign slogan to vote.

  • MNG||

    "So, at least according to that post, you can't wear a t-shirt with a campaign slogan to vote."

    That is retarded I agree. Sensible application of a decent rule seems so hard to so many...

  • Rich||

    Thanks. It seems to me that keeping gangs of thugs from harassing people oughta be covered by something else. When I voted in the primary I asked the officials (coincidentally) about this sort of thing and was told it's OK to just show up and vote wearing a political T-shirt, but not to hang around.

  • New Black Panthers||

    WE got away with it!

  • Douche||

    See some of the parasites in person (in handle?) in the comments here.

  • ExPat ExLawyer||

    Good and important piece, but needs links to the articles, studies and statistics cited. Seems as if something is wrong as my version of the piece has no hyperlinks in it at all.

    Please provide, Tim.

  • Wegie||

    "Government workers get more powerful as they grow less popular." Really? Who allows that?

  • Gary S||

    Who allows that? An electorate that wants to "throw the bums out" but keeps voting for the same people because their representatives aren't "bums," just the rest of 'em.

  • Paul||

    In 2009, the Gallup research group reported that for the first time in 70 years of polling, a majority of Americans opposed labor unions.

    Wow, so does that make Obama out of touch?

  • ||

    What happened to the hyperlinks that linked to actual information/deeper digging, etc? Now we have these damn arbitrary and irrelevant advertisement hyperlinks in their stead?! I guess maybe I need to increase my annual contribution to reason... What a pain in the ass those auto-pop-up hyperlinks are! Good grief!

  • ||

    Labor unions are promoting riots in Spain because the govt there is being bankrupt by union demands and is trying to scale down union wages and benefits. Would unions in the US force America into bankruptcy if they could? You bet they would. Americans are beginning to understand this, and that is why unions are losing public good will.

    The real danger occurs when labor and government work together to extract the wealth of the remainder of the country. That is what is happening now with Obama in power.

  • ||

    Interlocked unionzed bureaucracy: city, county, state, federal. Big Labor killed U.S. industry. Big Labor is killing U.S. government. If We The People do not assert our rightful power over the unionized bureaucracy then the scowling face of Richard Trumka will be the the image of power our children will be taught to fear. Kill Big Labor.

  • ||

    At the root of the problem is forced unionization, a legacy of the New Deal. But also public sector unionization, which even FDR opposed. With public sector unions, taxpayers are, in effect, forced, to subsidize the salaries and, hence, the dues and political contributions to union-friendly candidates. This whole corrupt structure must be dismantled. And it starts with Nov. 2, when we emasculate the Obamanation by taking by Congress.

  • Mr. D||

    Wow. This article shows absolute ignorance about what's actually happening in America. Maybe there have been inflated pensions or salaries in some States and municipalities, but to paint it as an epidemic that touches all States is woefully uninformed. In South Carolina the public employees have been furloughed, layed off and haven't seen a cost of living increase since 2007. Hardly living off the hog. The only explanation I can come up with for the "facts" cited in this article is that Mr. Cavanaugh must only be looking at the Head Football coaches at public universities... In which case, I agree they all make too much and their salaries should be slashed.

  • DLM||

    From the article:

    In 21 states, collective bargaining by public employees is either banned or somewhat restricted.

    Could SC be one of those states?

  • ||

    With two years left in "The One's" term, nothing can or will be done on the federal level, untill He is replaced. If...

    Maybe some of the new incoming Republican gov's will be able to do something.

    One can hope.

  • ||

    Where can we find the list of the 21 states that have fought against the public sector kleptocracy?

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