We have reached a potential turning point in the relationship of public employee unions and the electorate they ostensibly serve. Over the past year, there has been a steady drumbeat of criticism focused on public unions and the havoc they have wrought on our public finances. Governments -- city, country, state, and federal -- are drowning in red ink Our taxes are flowing to ever-voracious government workers (whose own ranks are growing steadily while the private payrolls shrink); they are better compensated than private workers in comparable positions.
What is to be done?
We -- taxpayers, tea partiers and sympathizers, independents, Republicans, and Democrats -- need to come together and forge a blueprint to take back our nation. The inclusion of Democrats was deliberate, despite the fact that many Democrat politicians are in the pockets of public unions. AFSCME, the government employee union, has a political action committee that is the second-largest in the nation, and virtually all of its donations are to Democrats; ditto the teachers' unions, or as they like to call themselves, "federations" and "associations" -- teachers know how to use thesauruses for political purposes. But when liberal newspapers such as the New York Times now report on subway conductors earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and the Boston Globe takes editorial swipes at public employee unions and their greedy and self-centered leadership, the timing may be ripe for Democrats to come out of the closet and transform themselves from donkeys into fiscal hawks (see Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's efforts in Los Angeles). When that arbiter of popular culture "Saturday Night Live" makes fun of surly government workers, we may have reached a turning point. Hope springs eternal on the political front, but what can people power do to weaken the grip of public employee unions and restore fiscal sanity to our governments' budgets?
We are in a communications war where we have a voice.
Public employee unions will spend millions to try to defeat measures to rein in their bloated salaries and pension benefits. They threaten even longer lines at government offices (and fewer of them), shorter hours at libraries, park districts cutting programs, and fewer policeman and firefighters. The list goes on and on of the plagues that will hit us if we dare take on public unions.
They never address high salaries, excessive days off, sick days being used because government employees are sick of work, or pensions being used to buy piña coladas in Pensacola.
Government unions spend vast sums on this propaganda (and on lobbyists and political campaigns to elect politicians to put in their pockets), and the exact amount is now almost unknowable. Barack Obama, in the first few days of his presidency, issued an executive order shielding unions from disclosure rules requiring them to report how they spend union dues.
But facts can be marshaled that put the blame where it belongs. Public-sector unions and state debt go hand in hand; states with the highest per capita debt have the strongest public-sector unions, who have cut sweetheart deals with politicians. We should highlight how these unions have diminished our futures. The American Enterprise Institute, CATO, Reason magazine, and the Manhattan Institute's City Journal have all been publishing columns on the problems posed by public employee unions. Their websites -- and that of American Thinker and sites such as Newsalert, who focus on this topic -- are readily available, are open 24 hours a day, and the information can be found easily and after a few seconds (unlike, say, at government offices). The Center for Union Facts has a well-designed website (http://www.unionfacts.com/), and PensionWatch reports on the coming pension tsunami that will engulf America at http://www.pensiontsunami.com/. This brief video that touches on the fiscal crisis caused by public unions can and hopefully will go viral (also see the end of this column for more reference material). Teachers' unions are a potent problem. They use children as props -- just as cute kids are used as props to sell products. What is the pitch? Children will be shortchanged if job-killing tax measures aren't passed. This is, of course, a fallacy. Expenditures per child have been increasing for years while educational achievement declines.
And the children are not being shortchanged by any measure. One hundred billion dollars of the stimulus flowed to states to keep educrats feeding on the clover. A new effort in the Senate would give them another $23 billion. These campaigns are very skillful and play on our primal needs to protect our children. Such a campaign was a winning one in Oregon, where job-killing taxes were increased. Unions spend millions to hype the hysteria.
But their claims can be rebutted.
Did you know that salaries in public school districts are in the public record?
The educrats and their allies on school boards may try to hide this information from inquiring taxpayers, as they did in Fairfax, Virginia until determined taxpayers pried it out of them. The information is there, waiting to be tapped and publicized via the old media and the new media. The Chicago Sun-Times, for example, made one school superintendent of a small, stable school district the poster boy for ruinous spending on sweetheart deals and benefit packages. When I passed around a list of the hundred highest-paid teachers in Illinois, my friends feasted on the names and numbers (a high school guidance counselor in a suburban school district brings home one hundred and fifty thousand dollars every year -- every nine-month year, that is, with plenty of holidays off). Teachers in New York City who cannot be trusted around kids still pull in high salaries as they while away the time in so-called "rubber rooms" that one enterprising ex-teacher (teacher on detention) uses as his office to manage real estate properties worth almost eight million dollars. John Stossel of Fox News and even "60 Minutes" reported on this travesty. The facts are on our side, but concerned citizens have to find it and spread it far and wide.
The Role of Leaders
We do have leaders who can rally taxpayers and, because they have a megaphone, broadcast the facts and rally taxpayers.
One of these leaders is, of course, Republican Chris Christie of New Jersey. He is seeking to stop rampant public-employee wage growth. Among his steps was calling on teachers to accept a one-year pay freeze so that programs for children would not face trimming. Revealing opponents' hypocrisy can work wonders.
The response: a prayer from the Bergen County Education Association (Union) officials that he die. When that did not work out as planned, the union started a six-million-dollar-and-counting campaign to wreck his popularity and plans -- this just since March (think about that next time teachers' unions bemoan their poverty). Nevertheless, he asked taxpayers to reject school budgets offered for approval in elections across the state, as they must be annually in New Jersey. Most voters obliged him.
Running against public employee unions has resonance with voters; the leader in the Alabama GOP primary for governor is a former college professor (!) whose platform takes on the political power of the Alabama Education "Association."
Use YouTube -- The People's Network
Governor Christie has become a YouTube star, and the clips of his taking on public unions are the reason ("teachers unions are bullies"). This shows the value of videos in our new age of media. We can see gladiators fighting for taxpayers. They are instantaneous and cannot be censored by liberals in the media who pick and choose what to broadcast.
Conversely, like all morality plays, there are villains, and we can watch them too, in all their glory.
One video that circulated recently showed an AFSCME union leader threatening Illinois legislators across the street as he demands more money for government employees. He ominously taunted them that AFSCME knew where they lived and could follow them home. (It's not so far-fetched when you consider that SEIU leaders protested in front of the home of a Bank of America lawyer recently. They owe the bank money and may have wanted their own bank-sponsored bailout. There is a new film genre: SEIU thugs at work.) Boston firefighters have done the same at Boston's City Hall. Protests are spreading -- and not just in Athens. Apparently, public servants are willing to serve only if they are vastly overpaid.
These protests should become part of the public record. In the era of camera phones and flip cameras, anyone can become a reporter. If Fox News won't run these clips, YouTube (the people's network) is available -- as are a myriad of websites.
Barack Obama and his allies on the political left make a fetish of excoriating salaries of corporate executives. Well, turnabout is fair play. Taxpayers are paying some very high salaries to government workers, and giving them golden pensions to boot. There are a lot more of them than there are corporate execs earning high salaries -- and they rarely are fired (unless they whistle-blow during Obama's reign, as did Inspector General Gerald Walpin).
While taxpayers struggle with higher tax bills, government bureaucrats are doing quite well. Barack Obama may moan that this is the toughest year and a half that America has ever faced (a laughable claim from the president who called himself a "student of history" -- in that subject, he certainly does not merit a B-plus), it hasn't been so tough for those on the government dole:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in the last year the federal government added 86,000 permanent (non-Census) jobs to the rolls. And high-paying jobs at that: The number of federal salaries over $100,000 per year has increased by nearly 50% since the beginning of the recession.
Today, the average federal worker earns 77% more than the average private-sector worker, according to a USA Today analysis of data from the federal Office of Personnel Management. America could save $340 billion a year by aligning public wages to private-sector rates -- enough to fill the budget holes in states over the next two years. That is how vast the pay differentials are between workers doing comparable work -- it just depends who pays -- politicians playing with Other People's Money (ours). Yet the Democratic Congress is adding insult to injury by proposing to award government workers a big ten-year pay raise.
What recession? Of the top 25 richest counties in America, 11 are part of the Washington metropolitan area (that sucking sound you hear is your money being vacuumed up by politicians, right into the sinkhole of D.C.). Government is seemingly the only growth industry left in America.
The problem is not just in Washington, but also prevalent throughout America, wherever politicians pay off public unions for their campaign support with our money. Why not name names of who benefits -- as does this taxpayer watchdog?
- The Madison, Wisconsin bus driver pulling in $160,000 dollars
- The New York City railroad conductor raking in $240,000 a year
- In New York, bus drivers can take two months off of paid leave if a passenger spits on them because their contract characterizes this as an "assault."
- The second-in-command of the firefighters in New York has retired on a tax-free disability pension worth almost $250,000 annually for the rest of his life because he once hurt his knee.
- Prison guards in California can easily earn over $100,000 a year, but that is trivial compared to the prison nurse there who raked in over $270,000 last year.
- The former city administrator of Vernon, California earns a pension of $509,664 a year.
The horror stories never end. They should be publicized. One group in California has taken that message to heart. The website californiapensionreform.com provides a searchable database for all public employees drawing six-figure public pensions. The concept can be cloned -- as it should be. Every government should have one. We should know who is responsible for this problem and shame them for frittering away our future. Support politicians who run on a platform of cutting back the power of public unions. Publicize how the fiscal fates of neighboring communities can depend on whether one allows public unions to exist and the other doesn't (a county in Virginia has a healthy budget, while its neighbor in Maryland is mired in fiscal woes. Virginia does not allow public employees to unionize, while Maryland does -- and Maryland Democratic politicians outbid each other with spending promises to public employee unions).
If they are elected, hold them to their promises. While many state constitutions protect pensions of government employees, they don't protect current jobs. Politicians should require government workers to bite the bullet, as the rest of us have. They are public servants, after all. Why not require them to chip in more to cover health expenses and pension benefits? Why not mandate that all new hires accept lower salaries and pension benefits that are more in line with private pay? And privatize...always privatize. Support politicians, such as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who were in the forefront of privatizing what had been government functions.
There are reasons public unions oppose vouchers and charter schools and why all state and government employees loath the idea of privatization. They know a bad deal for us is a good deal for them.
If the situation is dire, our politicians can threaten the nuclear option: Throw cities or counties into bankruptcy to break contracts with public employee unions. Vallejo, California filed for bankruptcy, done in by public unions; the city has been successful in renegotiating these contracts.
A municipality declaring bankruptcy may be the only way to quickly cut through the Gordian Knot of foolish contracts that politicians and public unions have tied together. There would be serious ripples in the financial markets. But dire times call for dire steps.
And we live in dire times that compel us to protect ourselves, because few politicians will.
Ed Lasky is news editor of American Thinker.