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For most Americans, the Great Recession has been an occasion to hold on for dear life. For public employees, it’s been an occasion to let the good times roll.
The percentage of federal civil servants making more than $100,000 a year jumped from 14 percent to 19 percent during the first year and a half of the recession, according to USA Today. At the beginning of the downturn, the Transportation Department had one person making $170,000 or more a year; now it has 1,690 making that.
The New York Times reports that state and local governments have added a net 110,000 jobs since the beginning of the recession, while the private sector has lost 6.9 million. The gap between total compensation of public and private workers has only widened during the downturn, according to USA Today. In 2008, benefits for public employees grew at a rate three times that of private employees.
Public employees have developed an inverse relationship to the rest of the economy — as it shrinks, shedding jobs and cutting salaries, they draw on a never-ending taxpayer bounty. It used to be said that the Great Depression wasn’t so bad, if you had a job. The Great Recession has practically been a boom, if you have a government job.
Public employees can thank the union label. In 2009, for the first time ever, a majority of union members worked in the public sector. Unionism has been a long, secular decline in the private sector (down to 7.2 percent of all workers), but increasing in government (up to 37.4 percent of all workers).
These public-sector unions are flush with cash, politically connected, and unabashedly self-interested. They are an active and growing conspiracy against the public fisc. The states where they are most powerful — California and New York — lumber toward insolvency. The federal government follows not far behind, on the kind of diet geese enjoy prior to becoming foie gras.
Public-employee unions can effectively occupy both sides of a negotiating table. They donate to and elect the politicians who bargain with them at contract time. Understandably, union-backed politicians forget which side they’re on. Fred Siegel, a visiting professor at St. Francis College and contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, recalls then-New Jersey governor Jon Corzine telling a huge rally of state employees in 2006: “We will fight for a fair contract!”
How often does a union hear that from management? This is why even Franklin Roosevelt maintained, “The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.” He’d blanch at the ways of 21st-century government.
In the Golden State, the California Teachers Association has all but become a branch of state government. Its exertions have given the state some of the worst schools in the country — and the highest-paid teachers. California’s prison guards have a powerful union — and also the highest salaries in the nation. The state instituted a reckless pension plan for public employees in 1999 that means more than 5,000 of them get more than $100,000 a year during retirement. It’s not a coincidence that California was reduced to issuing IOUs to cover its obligations for a time last year.
Government by and for the public-employees unions is bankrupting, both fiscally and ethically. In his post-Massachusetts explanations of why health-care reform stalled, Pres. Barack Obama vaguely acknowledged a few lapses in transparency. But he never mentioned the grossness inherent in inviting union bosses to the White House so they can exempt their members from a tax. That would cut too close to the bone, since it’s hard to tell where the unions end and the Democratic party begins.
“You must first enable the government to control the governed,” James Madison wrote, “and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” That’s impossible if government employees use public funds to muster themselves into a political machine devoted to their own interests and expansion.
– Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.