Public Sector Union Protests About Politics, Not the Middle Class

Commentary — By Paul Tyahla on March 1, 2011 at 2:12 PM

Last Friday, more than 3,000 government workers stood on the steps of the State House to demand perpetuation of the status quo, or some close approximation. This Friday, police and fire union members plan to do the same. Billed as rallies to demonstrate solidarity with their public worker brethren in Wisconsin, the rallies are a thinly-veiled message to legislators facing re-election this year: Don’t cross us.

Last Friday, AFL-CIO leaders characterized the modest pension and benefit reform changes proposed by Governor Christie and Senate President Sweeney as an assault on the middle class. The middle class in New Jersey is threatened, but not by these changes. Instead, the middle class is being forced out of the state due to oppressive property taxes that make the state unaffordable or unjustifiable as families discuss their futures around kitchen tables across the state. Census figures show that New Jersey’s population grew by 4.3% during the last ten years, but most of that growth was from new immigrants, while native New Jerseyans moved to places like Texas and Virginia. As a result of our population’s decision to leave, New Jersey will be losing a Congressional seat after the next election. Some of the fastest-growing states have some of the nation’s tightest restrictions on collective bargaining with public workers, yet their middle classes have managed to grow in size and strength.

Even elementary students in economics understand that we have scarce resources and unlimited desires. Like you, I would enjoy seeing the police officers, firefighters and teachers who do important work in our community enjoy rich retirement benefits. Unfortunately, we do not have the money to fund every benevolent impulse. As the nation’s highest taxed people, there is not much more government can take from its taxpayers, especially with the debt created by rampant spending in Washington.

This point is more apparent when we look at New Jersey’s pension and benefit deficits, which under government accounting methods are more than $100 billion in the red. That figure grows substantially when using the accounting methods we demand from the private sector. Requiring public workers to contribute up to 30% of their health insurance costs, slightly more for their pension benefits and a rollback of a pension boost that was never paid for by workers or the state is not an assault. It is a sensible approach to a problem that will only grow and become completely unmanageable if we choose to do nothing or merely tinker around the margins.

These proposals are not the solution to our state’s fiscal struggles. However, they are part of what is necessary if we wish to make this state a viable place to live, work and learn once again.

Union leaders spearheading these rallies know their members have a good deal. “Quit rates” in the public sector are about one-third as high as those in the private sector, during good times and bad. They also know the impact of these reforms will not be as dire as the current rhetoric. To union leaders and their lobbyists, this is about the stranglehold they have had on Trenton, and its quickly loosening grip.

When a private sector union bargains with its employer, the union is attempting to garner what it sees as its fair share of profits. However, the union knows it needs the company to remain profitable for their members to be employed. Government workers are in industries where they hold a monopoly. The state will not shut down the MVC, the schools or the firehouses. Plus, union members can vote in large blocs for their preferred negotiating partner. In some cases (a 9% pension boost in 2001, paid family leave), the unions prefer legislative solutions, in others (health benefits) they prefer to negotiate with the governor.

That is the essence of these Friday rallies. Knowing they have a rigid negotiator in the governor’s office means the legislature must stand with the unions for the unions’ power to remain intact. Otherwise, the political concept of an omnipotent NJEA or CWA is shattered and legislators and local officials will be more responsive to taxpayer demands.

This is a global recession and to deny its inevitable impact is not reality. The status quo is simply unsustainable under any rationale. Public workers must accept, just as the private sector has, that they must share the burden so that it does no’t continue to fall on the backs of the taxpayers who pay their salaries and outdated, bloated, benefits.

So, when you read accounts of the Friday rallies, remember the driving force behind their rhetoric. And remember while they have their rhetoric, the free market movement continues to have the facts.

Related posts:

  1. The Crisis in Public Sector Pension Plans


Leave a Reply


Leave a Trackback