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Telling the Truth About Public Employees

You’ve heard it before — a lie that goes like this: Public employees (especially those who are represented by unions) are the overpaid recipients of pension and health care benefits that are way too generous.

By Clyde Weiss

How enemies of public service unions are using lies and distortion to attack the hard-earned pensions, wages and health care benefits of public service workers.

By Clyde Weiss

You’ve heard it before — a lie that goes like this: Public employees (especially those who are represented by unions) are the overpaid recipients of pension and health care benefits that are way too generous. Corporate bosses, anti-union lawmakers and anti-worker ideologues at think tanks and media outlets like Fox News have repeated this fiction for many years. But today’s mythology has a new, more sinister twist — one that says the weight of public workers’ wages and benefits is what’s causing state and local budgets to crumble.

These myths shield the real ambitions of Wall Street and its ideological allies. They want to shrink the size of government, reduce or evade regulation, depress public worker wages and benefits so their own workers won’t demand better treatment, and deflate unions’ ability to give their members a stronger voice in the workplace.

Their campaign hasn’t been successful — yet. But their effort to direct public rage away from the economic devastation wrought by Wall Street fat cats and the collapse of the housing market has made us targets of their well-financed smears.

To deflect their own responsibility for the miserable state of the economy, these enemies of working people are attacking your wages and benefits by singling out public employees. In an interview with the Washington newspaper, POLITICO, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) recently called public workers “a new privileged class.” He added, “We used to think of government workers as underpaid public servants. Now they are better paid than the people who pay their salaries.”

Not true, of course. Public employee benefits are modest, and represent a good deal for the taxpayers who depend on the services that federal, state and local government workers provide. But that’s beside the point for people like Daniels, who have tried over and over again to destroy the ability of public service workers to win workplace rights and improve their lives by organizing with a union. On his first full day in office in 2005, Daniels rescinded state workers’ collective bargaining rights supported by three previous governors.

In the private sector, business leaders want to prevent their own workers from gaining the same rights, wages and benefits that union members now have. They also want to avoid paying their fair share of the taxes that support critical public services. To do that, they’re trying to turn public anger over lost jobs and low wages away from themselves and toward public service workers — particularly those who have worked to improve their lives through collective bargaining.

That’s why people like David Fleming, founding chairman of the Los Angeles County Business Federation, point their fingers at your pensions. “It’s no secret that the lavish public pensions engineered by the public employee unions are bringing local governments to the precipice of bankruptcy,” he recently told the Los Angeles Business Journal. Let’s take the myths apart and look for the truth.

Myth 1

Your pensions are bankrupting cities and states

Pensions are the low-hanging fruit for budget-cutting lawmakers and governors: Cut pension benefits and you don’t have to raise revenue or cut something else. It’s convenient. Politicians don’t like raising revenue — by increasing taxes on the wealthy, imposing fees, or closing tax loopholes — because it’s politically unpopular. Cutting back on services is also unpleasant because people demand something in return for their hard-earned taxes.

This is where those who would shrink government see opportunity. Rather than support increased revenue — from the public and themselves — they prefer to manipulate workers in the private sector who have lost their pensions (or never had one) into resenting those who do have pensions.

Magically, the stage is set for making the false claim — the myth — that public pension benefits are busting state and local budgets. What has really been created is a false choice — cut pensions or cut services. Intentionally, these detractors sidestep the real solution to the state and local budget crisis: raise revenue.

Public employees work hard and sacrifice wage increases for the promise of retirement benefits — a promise they expect will be kept. Many don’t qualify for Social Security. Pensions, savings and investments through a 401(k) plan are the primary means that public service workers have for securing their post-work lives.

The Truth: The average AFSCME member pays approximately 4 to 5 percent into a pension plan, and after a career of service, earns approximately $18,000 a year in benefits. It shouldn’t be reduced or eliminated over a myth.

Myth 2

Your salary is too high

AFSCME members have fought hard and effectively for decent wages and benefits for the vital work they do. Now we’re under attack by Wall Street interests and their anti-government allies who want to roll back wages and benefits, and are willing to spread falsehoods about public sector pay in order to do so.

Corporate-funded studies that claim public employees are overpaid are simply wrong. These reports typically share the long-discredited approach of comparing all public employees with all private sector jobs. They say the higher average salary in the public sector means AFSCME members and other public service workers should take huge pay cuts to even things out. But the two workforces are not the same. Public sector jobs on average require more specialized skills and advanced college degrees. Some, such as police, firefighters and corrections officers, assume greater risks for the safety of the general public, and are compensated better because of it. The people promoting these false stories know they aren’t telling the real facts, but they do it anyway because it helps further their anti-worker agenda.

What’s more, many of those spreading these lies about public employee pay are the same as those who have tried for years to cut workers’ pay in the private sector, in part by attacking unions. They’re simply moving on to public employees, in the hope that it will further drive down living standards for everyone but the very rich.

The Truth: AFSCME members know well that their efforts through the union help them gain better pay and benefits than non-union workers. But it’s hardly extravagant, and it’s not more than they deserve, which is what the right-wing think tanks and commentators are trying to get the public to believe.

Myth 3

Your health care benefits are too rich

Let’s face it, improving your working conditions, wages and benefits — especially health care — is what being a union member is all about. Through collective bargaining, public employees and employers come together to agree on a package that takes into consideration both the needs and desires of the members, and the ability of the employer to pay for those wages and benefits.

AFSCME members do have pretty good health care benefits. In many instances, we’ve sacrificed wages in favor of better insurance coverage, and we’re not going to stop trying to improve it even more. We believe in a fair deal for people who work hard every day to provide the public with the services they demand.

For the most part, AFSCME members pay a portion of the premium costs for their health care coverage. They also have co-pays and deductibles. It’s not a freebie. Yet opponents of public employees and their unions want to pit private sector employees — who have lost significant benefits over the past 25 years — against us, to demand that you give up some of your benefits.

The Truth: Many private employers want to block their workers’ access to benefits comparable to what public sector workers receive. Getting the public riled up over your health care benefits is the tactic they use to do this, and it’s outrageous.

Decent health care coverage is not a luxury. It’s a right that everyone should have. It’s what AFSCME has championed over the years, and will continue to fight for. It’s why we took such an active role supporting health care reform. That’s the union difference.