March 8, 2011
Cut Wages and Benefits for Public EmployeesBy J. Robert Smith
Here's a radical thought. It's not just wrong that a public employee earns more than his counterpart in the private sector; it's wrong for a public employee to be paid on par with his private sector cousin. In fact, as policy, public employees should earn less than their private sector counterparts. Why? There was once another name for a public employee: "civil servant," with the emphasis on servant.
The time has come to return to the concept that government workers are servants of the people, and not just professionals who have found comfortable niches at taxpayers' expense.
Squeezing financial concessions out of public employee unions and changing aspects of collective bargaining are important first steps, but more needs to be done to redefine the public employee. What Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is doing, in particular, is hacking away all the overgrowth on the trail back to the idea that public employees are civil servants. But the path needs to be cleared completely and traveled fully.
Conservatives should lead the charge toward returning the nation's government workforces to the concept of civil service. That means downsizing pay and benefits for most government workers. Exceptions should be made for firefighters, police, emergency workers, and soldiers.
The average salary for a firefighter is approximately $47,500, annually; for a police patrol officer the median income is $50,000 per year. Basic pay for a foot soldier -- an enlistee -- is $17,600. There are additional pay opportunities for soldiers -- say, combat pay. But the men and women who risk their lives for ours -- whether in combat overseas or patrolling America's mean streets - should be made exceptions.
In the federal government, executive, senior level, and scientific and professional pay can top out at $179,700, annually. The average pay for a federal worker is about $67,700. The average pay for a private sector worker is $46,300. Private sector dual income earners total about $67,350 on average -- or a little less than one federal worker makes annually. Last year, USA Today ran a story about wage disparities favorable to public sector workers that sparked outrage - and opened eyes.
Of course, wages don't count public worker benefits and nearly guaranteed employment. The list for federal worker benefits, leave, and pay is long. Many private sector jobs don't even come close to matching the feds' packages. For instance, the federal government offers workers support to assist with "peace of mind." This from a federal government website:
Nice perks, if you can get them. Most private sector employees can't, though.
But dollar figures and perks alone don't tell the story. To cut public employee pay and benefits requires an underlying principle; that principle is civil service. The notion that civil servants are called to make some sacrifices out of duty isn't a stretch.
No suggestion here that public employees be reduced to subsistence wages, nor should health and retirement benefits be stripped. But service to country should be the primary reason one becomes a civil servant -- or a Member of Congress, for that matter (pay and benefits for federal elected officials should be cut as well, but that's for another day). If a public employee can't make it on pay and benefits less than his opposite number in the private sector, then it's time for the public employee to find a nongovernment job.
For those who argue that it's unfair to cut wages and benefits for a public worker, say, fifteen years into a twenty-year career, one answer may be as simple as attrition. When a public worker retires have in place reduced pay scales and slimmed down benefit packages for a new hire or an existing employee moving into the vacated position.
The modern federal civil service began with the 1883 Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. The act was designed to eliminate the "spoils system," whereby the party in power put loyalists in federal government jobs. Patronage was rife with corruption; reform was necessary. Firewalls built around the civil service guarded against political interference.
However meritorious the Pendleton Act, it created a new class: the professional government worker. That wasn't much of a problem until the federal government started growing dramatically in the 20th Century, and with it, the federal workforce. The rise of the labor movement also paced bigger government.
Yet labor unions weren't a greatly significant force among government workers -- including federal employees -- until the 1970s. The rise of public sector unions coincided with the decline of private sector unions. Labor leaders weren't about to lose their jobs.
From the 1970s forward, professional government workers have organized to demand and receive bigger pay, benefits, and pensions. The Democratic Party -- the Party of Government -- has gladly accommodated public sector workers whose unions lopsidedly support Democrats. For the record, until recently, the GOP hasn't done much in a concerted manner to oppose the transformation of civil servants into just another interest willing to use influence and muscle to win better deals from government.
The irony, too, is that today, unionized government workers are exploiting the political process to gain advantages for themselves. The public interest has little to do with the aims of public sector unions. The Pendleton reforms, designed to keep federal civil servants free from political interference, created an employee class that has sought for more than a generation to freely interfere with and influence the legislative and executive branches of government. One hardly thinks that this development would have sat well with Ohio Senator Pendleton or other civil service reformers of his day.
Government by union holds no promise of good things for localities, states, and Washington. In fact, public pension woes in Wisconsin, California, and Illinois all point to the ruinous course the nation's governments are on when public employee unions cajole, strong-arm, and payoff (via campaign contributions and volunteer support) politicians for ever-larger takes from taxpayers' purses. It's high time to pursue policies that convert government workers back into civil servants. Cutting government worker pay and benefits below the going rates in the private sector could prove an important step in recreating the civil servant.