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.
But it’s tough to claim an entitlement to continuing economic special treatment, courtesy of taxpayers in tough economic straits. So perhaps it’s no surprise that in recent days, Wisconsin’s government-worker unions have focused their ire on a bill that would limit collective bargaining rights for many state workers (excepting police, firefighters and other public safety workers). Under the bill, government-worker unions would retain the right to bargain collectively for their wages – but not for their benefits, which have been so generous that they threaten the solvency of a variety of states throughout the country.
The government-worker unions' hysterical opposition to the Wisconsin collective bargaining bill – echoed and encouraged by the President and Democratic National Committee – signals an acknowledgment by both the unions and liberal politicians that the legislation represents a structural threat to a system that has benefited both of them. As the system currently works, government-worker unions collect dues from their members that are used, in significant part, to support Democrat politicians who are then voted into office and charged with “bargaining” with the government unions that supported them. It has worked splendidly for everyone involved – except the ordinary taxpayer who’s stuck paying the bill. So any legislation that would impede the continued operation of this cozy system and encourage further taxpayer-friendly reform is, not surprisingly, anathema to both the unions and the politicians.
Americans should expect the Democrat- and union-backed protests in Madison to continue, spread and even, perhaps, to intensify. Special interests don’t relinquish their privileges without a fight. But when the conflict finally ends, let’s hope it has served as a reminder to the government worker unions and the politicians who support them: They are supposed to be working to serve the taxpayers – not the other way around – and, in America, we won’t tolerate the continued existence of a special, privileged class of government overlords.