In late 2008, as the government began debating whether to save General Motors and Chrysler from bankruptcy, conservatives saw an opportunity to open a new front in their decades-long war on labor unions. So a new talking point emerged, repeated first by representatives of conservative think tanks, then by conservative talk-show hosts and columnists, then by Republican members of Congress. The Big Three auto companies had been crippled, they said, by greedy United Auto Workers members whose absurd union contracts had them making an astonishing $70 per hour on average.
You won't be surprised to learn that the figure was utterly bogus -- the average pay of an auto factory worker at the time was actually around $28 an hour, or a decidedly middle-class salary of $58,000 a year. But even as a little-remembered component of a short-lived debate, it is a good case study in why the right is so effective. An idea like the mythical $70-an-hour autoworker can be created out of whole cloth, then quickly move through the conservative media and be adopted by opinion leaders at all levels. The left has neither an equivalent media structure nor the same willingness to grab talking points and stick to them so assiduously.
I bring up this story because something similar is beginning to happen -- another assault on unions, presented as something else entirely. Only this time, it isn't about bailouts, and autoworkers aren't the targets. The ostensible subject is the budget deficit, and the target is federal workers. And once again, the right is centering its assault on unionized workers around a tendentious, misleading figure: $120,000 a year.
In the next few months, you'll be hearing a lot of conservatives railing against greedy government employees. The key to bringing down the deficit, they'll say, is firing federal workers and slashing the pay of the ones who remain. The unions that represent public employees, they'll say, are what's holding back the American economy. You'll be hearing Republican members of Congress say it, you'll be hearing conservative talk-show hosts say it, and you'll be reading it on the op-ed pages of your newspaper. You're going to hear this a lot: "Federal workers make an average of $120,000 a year, twice as much as workers in the private sector!" Before long, ostensibly neutral journalists will start asking questions like, "Shouldn't we rein in the power of the public-employee unions? Isn't it time to cut the pay of federal workers?"
To answer the obvious question: No, people working for the federal government don't make an average of $120,000 a year, and no, they don't make twice as much as private-sector workers. They do make more, however (we'll get to why in a moment). According to recent data, federal workers make an average of $81,258, compared to an average of $50,462 in the private sector. So where does the $120,000 figure come from? It's salary, plus the value of health insurance, plus the value of other benefits like pensions. If asked how much you made last year, would you tell me your salary, or would you total up the value of your salary plus your health-care benefits, plus your employer's 401K contributions? Of course you would do the former -- chances are you don't even know the value of the latter. When conservatives claim that the average government employee "makes" $120,000, they're counting on people hearing that number as salary, the better to convince them that government employees are sucking taxpayers dry.
It is true, however, that federal workers make more on average than private-sector workers, even though their salaries are nothing like what conservatives want people to believe. Why might that be?
The answer is two-part. First, as a group, federal workers tend to be in higher-paying occupations than private-sector workers. For instance, 10 percent of the private workforce works in sales, and another 20 percent in service, occupations that make up only a tiny proportion of the federal workforce. On the other side, two-thirds of federal workers are classified as management or professional -- managers, accountants, lawyers, doctors, architects, engineers -- compared to less than a third of the private workforce.
Moreover, in recent years, many of the lower-paying jobs government employees used to do, in areas like maintenance and food service, have been farmed out to contractors. The government is still paying for that work, but the people who do it don't show up on the tally of federal salaries. When you compare government workers not to the entire population but those doing similar work, you find that in some occupations, federal workers make slightly more, and in other occupations, they make slightly less. Overall, though, salaries for comparable jobs are very close. Just as important, government workers at all levels -- not just federal but state and local as well -- tend to be better educated, more skilled, and slightly older than private-sector workers.
A real disparity, however, exists between federal workers and private-sector workers, and that's in benefits. This brings us to the second part of the answer to the question of why federal workers do better: Many of them are represented by unions, which means they can bargain collectively for things like good wages and health benefits. Conservatives believe that when a group of workers makes reasonable middle-class salaries and has good benefits, something is amiss. The typical private-sector wage/benefit package is assumed to be the right one.
But while we can disagree about what government should be doing, we ought to be able to agree that we want government to do the things it does as well as possible. To ensure that, we need to recruit and retain quality workers. We don't have to pay them millions, but we have to pay them enough to make working for the government an attractive option.
Finally, a bit of context: The number of government workers is declining. One of the consequences of the recession is that cash-strapped state and local governments have been shedding jobs; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Employment in local government, excluding education ... has fallen by 123,000 over the past 12 months." The federal workforce is also much smaller than it once was. When John F. Kennedy was president, there were 13.3 federal workers for every 1,000 Americans. The number today is 8.4 federal workers per 1,000 Americans.
In the coming months, when you hear conservatives complaining about inflated salaries among federal employees -- and you will -- remember two important things. First, the numbers they're using are either misleading or outright false. Second, and more important, this isn't about reducing the budget deficit; it's about attacking unions.
For the last few decades, conservatives have waged a war on unions, one that has been largely successful. In the 1950s, a third of private-sector workers belonged to a union. Today, only 7.2 percent of the private-sector workforce is unionized. Government is the last substantially unionized sector in the American economy, a place where people who do the public's work can get a good salary, good benefits, and job security. And that's the real reason they've become the right's latest target.
You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)