Government employees

The Crass Chris Example

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A mighty wind's a-blowin'

Seven months (yet several lifetimes) ago, I wrote:

What is your nomination for the most intriguing political story this year? Here's mine: What if New Jersey Governor Chris Christie actually succeeds in paring down the Garden State's runaway public sector, and maintains or even increases his political popularity while doing so?

It's probably still premature to pass judgment on it, but this weekend's big New York Times Magazine profile of Gov. Christie suggests things are going in that direction. Sample:

[A]ccording to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted this month, most voters in New Jersey still admire teachers themselves, but only 27 percent have a favorable view of the union, while 44 percent say their view is unfavorable. By contrast, Christie's job approval has been consistently hovering above the 50 percent mark. […]

What the union's leadership seems not to have considered is that public sentiment around budgets and public employees has shifted in a fundamental way. […] [O]ver the last 10 years or so, most American workers have come to expect less by way of benefits and security from their employers. And with political consensus building toward some kind of public-school reform, teachers' unions in particular have lost credibility with the public. Forty­six percent of voters in a poll conducted by Stanford and the Associated Press last September said teachers' unions deserved either "a great deal" or "a lot" of blame for the problems of public schools. […]

Last year alone, 18 states either raised the pension-contribution levels for public employees or reduced benefits for their retirees, according to Susan Urahn, the managing director of the Pew Center for the States. Three states — South Dakota, Colorado and Minnesota — decided to eliminate cost-of-living raises for state workers who have already retired. […] Illinois raised its retirement age to 67, and Vermont, Michigan and Utah introduced "hybrid" retirement plans that are a step away from the defined-benefit pension plans that were the standard for much of the 20th century. […]

[N]ot only are public employees' contracts no longer untouchable for any politician who wants to stay in office, but it turns out that the opposite is true; taking the fight to the unions is a good way to bolster your credentials as a gutsy reformer with voters who have been losing faith for years in public schools and government bureaucracies.

This, more than anything else, is the lesson that Chris Christie has impressed on his contemporaries. The question now, and what a lot of these other governors are watching to see, is whether Christie can convert his anti-union riffs into a revised social contract for public servants. While he has enacted several pivotal pieces of his agenda, Christie has yet to pass more than a handful of the measures in his toolkit. This year will mark a major test of his staying power.

Whole thing here.