Are we kidding?
There is a growing group of misinformed folks out there who seem to be
convinced public employee unions are the cause of both the recession and
the budget deficits. If only we could do away with those horrible unions
then everything will be all right.
The anti-union rhetoric usually takes two forms. The first dredges up some
egregious example of costs associated with wages and benefits in New
Jersey or New York City or some other place where union contracts have run
amok. They like to pick someone at the top of the pay scale and then
combine salary and benefits to arrive at some breathtakingly large figure.
If they really want to juice the numbers theyll add in the anticipated
total cost of any pension plan.
The second front of the attack is both simpler and meaner: I dont make
decent money or get any benefits so why should they?
Maybe we should take a look at the other end of the scale.
The Traverse City Trans-portation Association just ratified a new
contract, their first in 3 years. They are members of a public employee
union. They drive our school buses.
The drivers make $14 an hour, tops. Even if they worked a 40 hour week,
which they do not, and worked the entire school year they would earn less
than $18,000 a year. Most drivers actually make closer to $12,000
True enough, they are not required to have advanced degrees or years of
specialized training. But they do have our childrens lives in their hands
twice a day, five days a week for nine months. Imagine your worst,
loudest, most crowded car pool experience, multiply it by eight or ten and
then repeat it 185 times.
Next year their budget will be slashed by a staggering $600,000 and they
will lose a string of benefits, lose all of their aides, and experience
changes in their healthcare coverage effectively increasing their
deductible to $2,000 a year. As a bonus, eligibility requirements for
health insurance have been changed and 14 of the 56 current employees will
be eliminated from coverage altogether.
At the same time, Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS), which employs
the bus drivers, has announced six of their administrators will take a 5%
pay cut next year after taking a 2% increase, retroactive through last
year. These employees have an average annual salary of about $100,000.
This benevolence will save the district about $33,000.
The fact is the overwhelming majority of public employees, including
teachers and public safety workers, do not make huge salaries or retire on
gigantic pensions. Administrators and corporate executives do.
Nationally, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal
Employees (AFSCME), the countrys largest public employee union, reports
their average member makes about $45,000 a year and retires with a pension
of about $19,000 a year. That is a livable wage and a nice supplement to
Social Security but hardly excessive pay or an extravagant pension.
To be sure, there are examples of outrageous union contracts with pay
beyond the value of the job and benefits beyond the pale. But they are
the rare exception. Especially now.
Virtually every union and every union member understands they are going to
have to make concessions. They will have to shoulder a larger share of
the burden by contributing more to both their retirement and health
insurance systems. Many will likely take salary cuts.
But public employee unions most decidedly did not cause the current
economic mess. They did not cause tech stocks to crash in the late
‘90s. Unions had nothing to do with the house-buying frenzy and
subsequent crash and ongoing foreclosure disaster. There were no union
contracts or benefits that caused a handful of greed-driven traders at
a handful of Wall Street firms to game the system and practically
collapse our financial institutions. And they didnt start wars that
cost us hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives.
We do need to have a real discussion about the long-term impact of public
employee pension systems and whether or not they are sustainable in their
current form. But that discussion does not require the demonization of
public employees or the destruction of their unions.
Are we really intent on lowest common denominator salaries and benefits?
I dont get any so, by God, nobody else is going to get any, either?
Thats not a plan, its economic nihilism.
Traverse City school bus drivers are thankful to have work. The contract
TCAPS offered was pretty clear ratify it or your jobs could be
privatized. They chose a very small carrot over a very big stick. They
are shouldering more than their fair share of the sacrifices were all
Making them, or other public employees, the villains will accomplish
nothing other than starting a cascade of lower wages and decreasing
benefits that will negatively impact every person who works for a living
whether they are union members or not. The rich will get richer and the
rest of us will be left to pick up whatever crumbs they leave behind.
So, if were going to throw public employees under the bus, we might as
well dive in after them.