Opinion changing about public unions
Saturday, June 16, 2012
Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen

The failure of last week’s recall election of Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin was an encouraging bit of news: a sign that Americans might be increasingly willing and even able to rein in our out-of-control government spending. 

But the interests arrayed against such sanity are formidable:

  • entitlement recipients who have become dependent on government payouts
  • lobbyists, contractors and too-big-to-fail corporations suckling on the public teat
  • public employees’ unions that have become used to getting what they demand and the politicians that are only too happy to have union support in return for selling taxpayers down the river

But public opinion is changing, particularly in regard to public unions.

Many citizens are starting to realize just how much government employees are costing us, and the other priorities that must be sacrificed to meet their demands.

The Wall Street Journal ran a story last week about how public support for the large salaries and benefits of firefighters and police officers has eroded from its post-9/11 high. In one cash-strapped city, a group of firefighters were publicly scolded by citizens in a grocery store for buying a cartful of expensive steaks on the taxpayer dollar.

This is only the very beginning of the wars over government salaries and benefits.

There are two groups on the side of well-padded government employment:

  • those who benefit personally, including public employees, public union officials and government contractors
  • those who idealistically believe that bigger government is the most effective way to help the needy and educate our children

The first group is beyond redemption and must be regarded by citizens as deadly opponents in the fight for the economic future of our nation. Perhaps it sounds more compassionate to compare them to addicts: continuing to indulge them will destroy us all; only “tough love” can save both them and us.

But I predict that the second, larger group will eventually, perhaps even quickly, become disillusioned as they witness the devastating effects of government salaries and benefits far in excess of what the average American earns, for a favored, powerful political group:

  • As retirement and health costs eat up budgets, important services are being cut.
  • Younger teachers must be laid off so that superior benefits are maintained for those with seniority (regardless of the effect on the education of students, which is now a secondary purpose of public schools).
  • Basic services, such as road maintenance and parks, must be compromised to continue funding the exploding pension costs of local and state government employees.
  • Public pension costs are crowding out services for the genuinely needy.

These effects are finally forcing us to answer some basic moral and practical questions about government:

  • How much of our resources should government command?
  • How much should government do and how much should private groups do?
  • Is the purpose of government to serve citizens or to provide well-paid employment?
  • Does providing generous compensation for government employees really advance progress in helping the needy, or does it merely line the pockets of middle-class government workers who would otherwise be employed in the private sector, while depressing the entire economy, resulting in even more poverty than there would have been?
  • Should government employees be paid more than the taxpayers who are forced to pay them, or is this the grand injustice of our time?
  • Is allowing government employees to form a powerful special interest group to collectively bargain against the interests of citizens a corruption of democracy, as even President Kennedy insisted?
  • Do some people have the right to live at the expense of others?

The willingness of the citizens of Wisconsin to allow the governor to continue small steps to bring fiscal sanity to their state is a remarkable sign. Could there actually be hope for our nation? I’m not convinced yet, but this episode is encouraging.