There’s no doubt that the government-union protests taking place in Madison, Wisconsin are about fiscal responsibility, and the public sector learning to live within its means. But they’re also about much, much more. Above all, the conflict is about whether Americans will continue to be divided into two different classes: Government workers, and the rest of us.
For years, public employees have exhorted their fellow Americans – those who are paying their salaries – to pay their “fair share” of ever-higher taxes. But the tax increases have served less to improve state and local services than to provide pay and benefit packages that now substantially outstrip those available in the private sector.
According to the Department of Labor, when it comes to hourly wages, the average in the private sector is $19.68 per hour; for workers in state and local government, it’s $26.25. While 74% of private-industry workers receive paid sick leave and 8 paid holidays per year, 98% of state and local government workers have paid sick leave, along with 11 paid holidays yearly. And 99% of government workers have retirement benefits (with the same percentage enjoying medical benefits), compared to 74% and 86% respectively of private sector employees. Finally, in the private sector, an average of 20% of medical premiums are paid by employees, while state and local government workers pay only 11% on average. By almost any measure, it pays to work for the government – subsidized by taxpayer money and unconstrained by the economic discipline imposed on the private sector by the need to compete -- rather than as a taxpaying employee in a private enterprise.
In fact, in light of the figures above, it’s remarkable to witness the outpouring of rage and protest that has resulted from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s insistence that his state’s public workers pay for roughly 6% of their own pension costs (up from nothing now) and around 12% of their own health care benefits (up from 6% currently, which is well below average even for state and local government employees). It seems that government workers feel entitled to reject the kind of “tough choices” that have been forced on the private sector by the Great Recession.
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