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The Assault on Public Employees

May 24, 2010

Percentage Change in Income Chart

This entry by AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee is cross-posted from Huffington Post and Firedoglake.

For more than a generation, America's working families have been under a constant assault from the CEO's and extraordinarily wealthy members of our society. While median incomes in the U.S. have stagnated since the mid-1970's, incomes for those in the top five percent have more than doubled. Since the beginning of our new century — and aided by record-breaking tax cuts — incomes for the top 1 percent have tripled, while working families scrape by, working harder and longer and taking home less than they deserve in pay and benefits.

Last week, the very rich once again attacked the middle-class, this time in U.S. News and World Report. Billionaire publisher Mort Zuckerman decided to use his magazine to publish a rabid attack on public employees, the men and women who provide the services that keep our communities safe, teach our children, keep our streets paved and our water clean.

In his piece, Zuckerman would have us believe that the hunt is over and we have found the culprits who trashed America's financial health. It was our nation's librarians, corrections officers, teachers, cops and fireman who drove our economy off the cliff. Wall Street and a compliant Federal Reserve had nothing to do with it. There's really nothing more to see here; it's time to move on. Zuckerman's short-sighted assault on public employees appealed to the editors of Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal, who decided to republish it on their op-ed page. The billionaires are happy to amplify their anti-worker screeds in each other's media empires.

Mort Zuckerman is one of the world's wealthiest men. While never once mentioning the reprehensible behavior of the investment and banking community in causing an economic collapse that wiped out half a generation of retirement savings (including the home equity that many had counted on), nor acknowledging that wealthy Americans pay less in taxes than they did 60 years ago, Zuckerman launches a rant against public employee unions and the "extraordinary benefits" paid to workers that is long on hyperbole and short on facts.

AFSCME's non-teaching public employee members earn, on average, $45,000 a year to protect the public and the most vulnerable members of our society. After a career of service, our members retire with modest pensions of about $19,000 per year. And, unlike most private sector workers, our members typically contribute towards this pension benefit. In fact, of the final pension benefit, taxpayers contribute just 25% of the cost. The fact that public employees have decent health benefits and pensions, now scarce in the private sector, is genuine cause for alarm. Zuckerman's solution is for these benefits to be taken away from public employees. Of course, he has a net worth of over $2 billion, so he's not much troubled by such a sacrifice.

Zuckerman claims the benefits earned by public employees are "galling" to private sector workers. How would he know? What is truly galling for private sector employees is the outright refusal of our political and economic elites to recognize and deal with stagnant wages and eroding retirement and health security. Our nation's problem is not that public service workers have decent pensions, it is that so many other employees don't.

The cause of our fiscal problems is declining revenues, pure and simple. The fact that state governments have cut almost half a trillion in spending over the last three budget cycles is ample evidence of this. Moreover, Zuckerman misrepresents the facts about public pension funds. The primary cause of our pension funding challenges is the failure of state governments to contribute required payments over many years. For example, the political leaders in New Jersey deliberately failed to make required contributions over a period of more than ten years. Of course, employees have been paying in full, year after year. The employees acted in good faith, the political leaders did not.

We have a genuine retirement security crisis in this nation — the average 401(k) balance is just $35,000 — yet we see nothing from Zuckerman or his billionaire buddies like Rupert Murdoch that would even remotely address the problem. Vilification of public employees may fit their anti-working-class agenda, but it won't create good jobs in our economy. Nor will it solve the problems facing states that have failed to keep up with their pension obligations.

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