A few years ago, the Oregonian started giving Dave Lister, a failed City Council candidate, a periodic spot on the Op-Ed page. Lister was presumably to represent the “forgotten” East Side and the “little guy” running a business.
Flash forward. Lister, sadly, has become just another right wing demagogue receiving “talking points” through the fillings in his teeth from the RNC. In this week’s Oregonian, he takes up the drum beat against public employees with the same canards being used by Lars, Victoria, Jayne and the other Beck-lites of the Portland air waves. Public employees are overpaid, he says. And, worse, we load the deck by electing officials who then “owe” us and can’t bargain in the public’s interest.
The implicit answer to these “problems” is, of course, to elect Republicans. The only problem is that both assumptions are demonstrably false.
Public employees are not overpaid. The State’s own, 300+ page study last year found that, while compensation comparisons varied from job to job, overall, public and private compensation were pretty much equal here in Oregon. A national study out of DC a few months back showed that professionals in government received 29% less than their private sector counterparts. Those calculations include health insurance and retirement plans. Now to be fair to Lister, strictly speaking, he does dodge this inconvenient truth, saying only that non-professional employees “now earn as much or more than their private sector counterparts.” However, where’s the unfairness in “as much as?” And the “more,” for many categories, is 2-3%.
But that hasn’t stopped the present administration in Salem from proposing cuts to state employees that AFSCME Executive Director Ken Allen called “draconian.” The cuts are at least 12%, and, for lower paid workers, such as an Office Specialist 1 making $2,586 per month, the cuts will be 23.7% (check out the calculator for what the State’s proposal will do at the pay calculator at the top right hand of the home page).
Now consider the State’s all funds budget in the last biennium was $60.5 billion, and to sustain “current service levels” we would need $3.5 billion more than is currently on hand. Although the Governor has moved away from the “current service” approach, that number remains the core of all budget conversations. So, that means that the cuts must equal 5.78%. Yet the State’s proposal would cut employees – whose earning power this State’s economy needs as much as that of the mill worker in Lebanon, the rancher in Lakeview or the CPA in Beaverton – between 12 and 23 percent!
Two things should be apparent from this. First, that the idea that electing “union-friendly” Democrats puts the unions in charge of their own workers’ pay is a total canard. This is a Democratic Governor’s team putting these proposals on the table. I sit at the AFSCME “Central Table” in bargaining. This is not a puppet show! The State’s requests of labor are not only disproportionate to the need, but regressive. Second, even assuming that a few non-professional categories of jobs currently get more than they would in the private sector, they certainly will be far behind after anything remotely resembling the State’s proposal.
But the truth doesn’t intrude into the statements made by Lister and the others. Lister states that public employees are different from those, apparently like him, who “have gone without pay raises for years.” Dave, as President of AFSCME Local 1085, I can tell you that my members, in the past eight years, have had raises in two, freezes in four, and cuts in two. And five of those past eight years were boom times for the private sector.
Although I am very thankful that our Governor and others elected with union support are not following the path taken by Tea Party driven anger in Ohio and Wisconsin, that is a far cry from saying that they are under the thumbs of those of us with union cards. And the myth of the overpaid public employee is simply that: a myth. Yes, our pensions and medical benefits don’t look like those for most in the private sector. But neither do our salaries, and they (at best) balance out.
I also find it ironic that Lister and his ilk would argue that private sector principles (as they define them) should apply, and yet don’t apply the most basic such principle of all: that labor will flow to the best compensation. Of course, maybe they don’t care whether the government can function, whether it retains skilled workers, whether its institutional memory survives and creates efficiencies. Perhaps that’s really the long-term goal. But most of us recognize the value of good government…and of good government employees.
Labor has said repeatedly that we understand the need to help find the way out of this budget crisis. But there is a large difference between asking for our help and using state workers as the scapegoat for the state’s budget problems. Mr. Lister has forgotten this, if he ever knew. The rest of us should not.