Journalist Steven Greenhut of the Pacific Research Institute set off the current debate over public-sector unions with his 2009 book Plunder: How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation, in which he labeled public employees a new elite and accused them of exploiting taxpayers for cushy benefits. In Spring 2010, Steven Malanga, a Manhattan Institute fellow and adviser to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, published a fiery article in his think tank’s quarterly called “The Beholden State: How public sector unions broke California,” following that up with his book, Shakedown: The Continuing Conspiracy Against the American Taxpayer. He writes,
How public employees became members of the elite class in a declining California offers a cautionary tale to the rest of the country, where the same process is happening in slower motion. The story starts a half a century ago, when California public workers won bargaining rights and quickly learned how to elect their own bosses…The result: unaffordable benefits for civil servants; fiscal chaos in Sacramento and in cities and towns across the state; and angry taxpayers finally confront the unionized masters.1
Adding intellectual heft to the idea that public-sector unions are illegitimate was an article by City College of New York Political Science Professor Daniel DiSalvo, the son of a union carpenter, called “The Trouble with Public Sector Unions,” published in the Fall 2010 issue of National Affairs.2 Picked up by the conservative blogosphere, as well as by the Economist, the Atlantic magazine blogger Andrew Sullivan, and most potently the New York Times columnist David Brooks, DiSalvo says that public-sector unions are big campaign spenders, which gives them unseemly power to chose those with whom they bargain. Arguing that these unions organize politically to increase the size of the governments that employ their members, he criticizes a 2009–2010 referendum in Oregon that raised taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations. The unions, says DiSalvo, create a distorted labor market and weaken public finances because of the pension obligations they require governments to incur. And alliances among public-sector unions and community groups diminish democracy, he claims, because public-sector unions negotiate on issues of public policy, such as the number of charter schools or merit pay for teachers, removing such issues from the legislative realm, where they belong.
By June 2011, the New York Times was telling a similar story, in an article that focused on a California lifeguard who retired after thirty years, at the top of the state’s pension system. The Times fails to mention that California’s system is not in the red: some states responsibly funded their pension systems while others, like Illinois, “borrowed” from pension payments, eventually pushing their systems into crisis. Nor does it note that many states made irresponsible cuts to the business and other taxes they needed to fulfill their obligations. And like most articles about public workers’ pensions, this one fails to explain that many government workers don’t pay into Social Security, so their pensions are all they have in retirement. Finally, while the article highlights apparently crazy pension rules, nowhere does it mention that the average state or local public pension benefit in the U.S. is $22,653 a year, according to the U.S. Census. The California pension system website reports that 74 percent of its pensions are under $36,000.3
- Steven Malanga, “The Beholden State: How public-sector unions broke California,” City Journal, Spring 2010.
- Personal interview, May 9, 2011; “The Trouble with Public Sector Unions, ”National Affairs, Fall 2010. http://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-trouble-with-public-sector-unions
- Iris Lav, “Testimony: Iris Lav on the Transparency and Funding of State and Local Pensions Before the House Ways and Means Committee, Subcommittee on Oversight,”Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,May 5,2011. http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3486