Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Dave Johnson Headshot

Understanding the Attacks on Public Employees

Posted: Updated:
UNION CUTS

You can barely open a newspaper or turn on a radio without hearing about states and local governments bankrupted by high-paid public employees, their pensions and their unions. How much of what you are hearing is really true, and how much is just one more Wall Street-funded campaign to turn people against each other and our government?

What do we see if we look around at the state of the economy? Stocks are soaring, corporate profits are way up, Wall Street gets trillions in bailouts and pays millions upon millions in bonuses. But regular people are having a hard time making ends meet and unemployment is still through the roof. Instead of programs to create jobs, stop foreclosures and rebuild our crumbling infrastructure the government passes more tax cuts for the rich. A few Wall Street and big-corporate types are getting very rich (richer) at the expense of the rest of us. If you are sitting pretty on Wall Street, you probably don't want people thinking about these contrasts too much.

"Look Over There!"

How do you get regular people to "look over there" with all of that going on? Simple: launch a big campaign to blame the librarians, firefighters and other public sector workers for the hard times. "Don't blame US," Wall Street says, "Look over there!" Blame the economy's victims for economic crimes. And, do you know what? This is a strategy that is proven to work every time.

"Look over there!" Gawker says it pretty well in the title of their post, The Plan to Blame Unions For Everything:

Why is our economy in the predicament that it's in today? High unemployment, sluggish growth...who's to blame? The unions, of course. The unions are the enemies of the working man. The working class must destroy unions for their own good.

...Public employees have jobs like everyone else. The right of workers to unionize should be a fundamental one. No one is claiming that unions are perfect; but if we're going to start destroying imperfect things, the statehouse would be a more beneficial place to start than the union hall.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, in, "The Shameful Attack on Public Employees", writes:

Public servants are convenient scapegoats. Republicans would rather deflect attention from corporate executive pay that continues to rise as corporate profits soar, even as corporations refuse to hire more workers. They don't want stories about Wall Street bonuses, now higher than before taxpayers bailed out the Street...

It's far more convenient to go after people who are doing the public's work -- sanitation workers, police officers, fire fighters, teachers, social workers, federal employees -- to call them "faceless bureaucrats" and portray them as hooligans who are making off with your money and crippling federal and state budgets. The story fits better with the Republican's Big Lie that our problems are due to a government that's too big.

Above all, Republicans don't want to have to justify continued tax cuts for the rich. As quietly as possible, they want to make them permanent.

But the right's argument is shot-through with bad data, twisted evidence, and unsupported assertions.

"Look over there!"

Robert Creamer, at Huffington Post, in "Time to Stand Up for the Public Sector", says this is really about advancing anti-government ideology:

For over forty years, the right wing has mounted an irrepressible campaign to discredit the very concept of government in the United States.

...The wealthy elites that dominate the American Right have financed the campaign to demonize government because they want the opportunity to pursue a very different group of values that have nothing to do with America's founding principles. They want the right to concentrate more and more wealth and power into their own hands.

David Dayen has been following this at Firedoglake, in The War on Public Employees:

The reason state and local budgets are in trouble simply has nothing to do with their spending on public employees. It's about the financial crisis which triggered the Great Recession. In 2009, the recession dipped state tax revenues by 1/3. There's no way on earth to attribute that to public workers. The obliteration of state revenue is entirely to blame. And the folks who created and sold toxic mortgage instruments and sucked trillions in wealth into a high-risk vortex shoulder the burden.

And yet they are not shouldering any of the responsibility; those danged public workers are.

Other Voices

At GRITtv, Laura Flanders talks about my post, "Conservatives Claim Unions Caused NY Snow Jam" in "The F Word: Public Workers Getting Snowed", (hey Laura, I'm at Campaign for America's Future, not Center for American Progress.)

Buckle your snowshoes for more of this in the coming year, a lot of attacks from newly elected representatives and state officials on public sector workers -- and their unions. New Republican Wisconsin governor Scott Walker is bragging that he's going to "force" state workers' benefits in line with everyone else, New York's new Democratic governor just announced a pay freeze, and John Boehner is calling for austerity. For the state and its workers, mind you, not the super-rich few. 

Let's make a New Year's resolution not to get snowed.

Caitlin Vega of the California Labor Federation, in, "Anti-Union Measures Harm ALL Workers":

The idea that unions are somehow responsible for destroying our economy is absurd. The Labor Movement has been the most outspoken critic against all of the things that actually did cause this crisis: bad free trade agreements that harmed all workers, unfair lending practices that resulting in millions of families losing their homes, unrestrained corporate greed that rewarded CEOs for mass layoffs and the offshoring of jobs.

Art Levine, at In These Times, asks, "Will the New Assaults on Public Employee Unions Undermine All Workers?":

Years of demonizing public employee unions as part of a right-wing assault against the labor movement now seems about to pay off...

To some observers, this attack against public employee unions -- abetted by right-wing misinformation campaigns that unions and their allies are just starting to counter -- so profoundly threatens the labor movement that it poses a broader danger to the economy while strengthening the "Winner-Takes-All" politics that has dominated public policy for decades.

"Look over there!"

Brave New Films has created a video, Wall Street Fat-Cats Flip Public Service Workers the Bird:



STOP THE LIES Campaign

Gerald McEntee, President of the AFSCME Union has a post at Huffington Post, "Stop the Lies:

By blaming public service workers and working families, the right wing tries to divert attention from the simple fact that reckless, unregulated behavior of multi-millionaires on Wall Street caused unprecedented state budget shortfalls, the loss of 15 million American jobs and the collapse of our economy.

We're not going to let them get away with it. At this pivotal moment in the economic history of our country -- indeed, the world -- we cannot stand by and let corporate CEOs and their flunkies define the debate and shape the future.

... Now, after capping private sector workers and their unions in the knees, the rich and the right have set their sights on public services and the men and women who provide them.

That's why AFSCME has created a campaign we're calling "Stop the Lies." You can join us bywatching our new video and adding your name to our Stop the Lies open letter.

STOP THE LIES Video and Website

Here is the STOP THE LIES video:

This video directs people to a STOP THE LIES website where you can sign up to add your voice, download a fact sheet and find other resources.

Here is Brave New Films' Robert Greenwald, on The Ed Show:



Some Facts

Tula Connel at the AFL-CIO Blog points out that, in fact, "Public Employees Paid Less than Private-Sector Workers"

With the barrage of orchestrated extremist attacks on public employees, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reminds us today of a study it commissioned last year that disproves one of the biggest lies by anti-workers-that public employee make excessive pay. In short, public employees are paid less than private-sector workers, even when factoring in employer-provided benefits.

... Read the full report here.

Meteor Blades makes the same point at Daily Kos, in "Public employees work for less, not more":

In the divide-and-conquer assault on public employees which the powers-that-be have unleashed in their latest round of class warfare, we've been told repeatedly that government-paid workers make more than private-sector workers. The typical approach is to point to a bus driver or a professor or a garbage collector who made some seemingly outrageous sum. As states struggle with revenue shortfalls and the unemployment situation remains grim, there is more and more talk about "fixing" this situation. Typically, that includes going after the unions. It is, after all, they who are at fault for the supposedly unfair windfall their government-paid members have gained while workers in the private sector have suffered from economic downturn.

Just one problem with this theme. It's based on what Jeffrey H. Keefe at the Economic Policy Institute has labeled the myth of the overcompensated public employee.

On average, state and local employees earn $6,061 per year less than their private-sector counterparts. Add in health and insurance benefits and the average public worker earns $2,001 less per year than her peer in the private sector.

Special Report

LABORnotes has a special report "Public Sector, Public Good" with several articles, including "Public Employees: Myths and Realities":

With all the venom directed at public employees these days, it's hard to separate the facts from the attacks. Here's a guide to common claims made about government spending, taxes, and public employees.

The Claim: Government employees are overpaid.
The Facts: The Economic Policy Institute measured state and local public workers against their private sector counterparts with the same age, experience, and education. They found that public workers earn about 11 percent less.

CLICK THROUGH for more from LABORnotes.

I hope this roundup helps people to understand that the attacks on public employees and their unions is just one more effort by Wall Street and the biggest corporations to distract us from seeing the bigger picture of what is happening to us and to our economy. A wealthy few are using their power and influence to take more and more for themselves at the expense of the rest of us. This time, don't "look over there." Instead look at what is really going on.

This post originally appeared at Campaign for America's Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF.

Sign up here for the CAF daily summary.

Register To Vote