Renée Loth

Going postal on public workers

By Renée Loth
February 19, 2011

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AT THE end of federal judge Nancy Gertner’s forthcoming memoir, she repeats a story she told at her swearing-in ceremony in 1994. Her late mother had been worried about young Nancy’s prospects, even after she graduated from Yale Law School, and had urged her to take a municipal toll-taker’s exam “just in case.’’ As the audience assembled to watch Gertner ascend to the federal bench gasped in wry disbelief, she looked heavenward. “Ma,’’ she exulted. “At last a government job!’’

For generations of striving working-class families, a government job was seen as the Holy Grail: modestly paid, perhaps, but respectable, with good benefits and — most of all — secure. Now it is open season on public workers, from teachers to firefighters to federal office clerks. Their wages and benefits are decried as overly generous by beleaguered taxpayers; their reputations have been sullied by outrageous examples of double-dipping, platinum parachutes, and corruption.

Public employee wages and benefits are a fat target of opportunity for elected officials looking to cut budgets amid rising deficits and taxpayer revolts. President Obama has declared a two-year wage freeze for federal workers. Governor Deval Patrick is trying to muscle municipal health care plans under the less-generous Group Insurance Commission. This week the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation released a study on public-sector retiree health benefits, calling them “the brick that broke the municipalities’ backs.’’

Stoking the resentment are such commentators as Rush Limbaugh, who derides public employees as “freeloaders’’ and “socialists.’’ The Republicans bleating about jobs don’t seem to count the jobs done by street sweepers or school nurses. Conservative pundits, even the Globe editorial board, have called for an end to the defined benefit pension plans public-sector workers receive, saying they should be replaced by riskier 401(k) plans. Never mind that government workers are mostly not eligible for Social Security benefits — the original defined benefit pension.

No doubt many public-sector unions have brought this on themselves, with tone-deaf positions such as the refusal of Boston firefighters to submit to drug tests without being lavishly compensated. Often public-sector benefits are way out of whack with the rest of the workforce (although wages are more comparable). But would any bitter taxpayer decline the same deal for his own family?

The problem is that wages and benefits for private-sector workers have collapsed. “People are squeezed,’’ said Harris Gruman, executive director of the Service Employees International Union state council. “Working-class people who’ve lost their own benefits are subsidizing workers in the public sector who still have these things. It’s an unsustainable situation politically.’’

The answer, Gruman quickly adds, is not to strip government workers of their health and security — a beggar-thy-neighbor approach that lowers everyone’s standard of living — but to improve the prospects of others. “The resentment is misplaced,’’ he said. “You need to increase private-sector unionization so those workers can start getting decent benefits again.’’

To be sure, only 6.9 percent of private-sector workers are in a union, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with 36 percent of government employees. Bringing the clout of organized labor to Wal-Mart (the country’s biggest private employer) would likely lift all boats. A more progressive tax system, with top rates closer to the days of, oh, say, the Eisenhower administration, would also help. It’s easy to conflate public employees with the loathed “big government.’’ But the people soaking up all the wealth in our economy are not the teachers and nursing home attendants.

The conundrum is that the benefits for teachers, police, and the rest, especially in health care, are threatening to bankrupt the very municipalities that employ the teachers and police. In Lowell, according to Michael Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, 100 percent of the growth in the city’s budget from 2009 to 2011 was consumed by health care costs. That leads to layoffs. “Politically and fiscally it’s unsustainable to have these vastly disparate benefit levels,’’ Widmer said.

Both sides agree the status quo is “unsustainable.’’ The division comes over what to do about it. Public workers and the governments that employ them need to find ways to eliminate undeserved perks and abuses while protecting enough benefits so that public service is still something worth striving for.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.