“Beggars don’t envy millionaires; they envy other beggars who have better shoes.”
With most states in the union now experiencing economic hardship (and some, like my state of California, being billions of dollars in the red), attention has been focused on the wages and pensions of public sector employees—the cops, firemen, school teachers and civil servants who have been around forever.
When things were going well, when states were flush with money, few people envied, resented, or even paid much attention to the wages and pensions these folks received. Obviously, no one was getting rich working as a court bailiff or clerk in the Department of Motor Vehicles; and even with a decent pension, they had to put in their 25 or 30 years before collecting it.
As far as most people were concerned if you came out of high school or college and wanted a job in the public sector, more power to you—undeniably, we needed those teachers and firemen—but no one was gushing over those jobs. And why weren’t they gushing? Because there was nothing to gush over; clearly, the public sector wasn’t the “fast track.”
People didn’t start resenting these jobs until recently; until the private sector betrayed us; until America’s private sector abandoned its manufacturing base, cut back on medical coverage, cut back on stable 40-hour per week jobs, began using part-timers and temps, and eliminated traditional retirement plans. Only then did the perceptions begin to curdle.
But let’s be fair; these citizen-taxpayers have a legitimate gripe. After all, it’s one thing to get laid off, lose your health insurance, watch your retirement fund dry up, and find out, at age 52, that you’re probably too old to be readily rehired in a depressed job market. But it’s a whole other deal to see people not only still employed and getting good pensions, but getting those pensions with your tax dollars.
Labor unions aren’t stupid. They fully recognize that when things are tough—when one in ten are out of work, when half the states in the union are broke and the other half hanging on by their fingernails—attention is going to be focused on the obvious targets. And the obvious targets are union people employed by state, county and municipal governments, people still fortunate enough to be clinging to the middle-class.
While these workers don’t deserve to be victimized, they accept victimization as inevitable. They realize taxpayers will blame them before they’ll look to Wall Street, corporate welfare, the defense industry or the U.S. Congress. They realize that payback will raise its ugly head. But even with their willingness to bite the bullet, one thing still rankles these workers: It’s the revisionist history that’s taking place.
We need to be clear about the work. No one was getting rich taking these public sector jobs. What they were doing was optimistically hoping to enter the middle-class and remain in it—hoping to be able to afford a home, educate their children, and retire in modest comfort. Despite the hyperbole and anecdotal exceptions, for the vast majority of public workers, the pensions are decent but far from exorbitant.
Indeed, back in the day, these civil servants were viewed as having “settled for less,” as being far less ambitious than the go-getters among us, as willingly relinquishing any chance of becoming wealthy or doing anything exciting or glamorous or cool—relinquishing it in return for the relative security of a boring, safe, nondescript job.
But now, in a frenzy of revisionist history, these jobs are being portrayed as shady coups of some sort, as sinecures, as a freeloader’s passport to a life of leisure. This is not only absurd, it’s insulting. The public sector is what it’s always been. The only thing that’s changed is the economy itself. And with the American economy having been systematically ravaged, these modest government jobs are going to look very sweet.
With the taxpayer underwriting these jobs, it was only a matter of time before envy and resentment—not to mention old-fashioned fiduciary practicality—kicked in. The really sad part is that we’re going to be jettisoning much of what’s left of the middle-class.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org