Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Don't Blame Public Employees

A recent article in the Economist magazine titled "Tough Times for Everyone - Except Public Sector Workers" states that taxpayers are now learning about "the banquet public sector workers have been having at the expense of everyone else" and that many public employees can "retire in their mid-50s on close to full pay."

These unsubstantiated claims--repeated endlessly in media--stand reality on its head. Such accusations are part of a systematic campaign by corporate America to mislead taxpayers and scapegoat public employees.

California public sector workers, such as teachers, public health nurses, firefighters, librarians, maintenance, park, transit, and social workers are not responsible for the economic crisis that makes drastic cuts to state and local governments necessary. These public employees earn modest, middle-class pay and benefits.

Rather, it was big business and the wealthy who gamed the deregulated financial system to make huge profits. Their speculation in the home mortgage markets triggered the Great Recession; then they proceeded to take billions in bailouts from the government; and last year, Wall Street's leading investment and financial services firms paid out a record $144 billion in compensation and benefits.

Often forgotten is that public pensions are not paid from operating budgets of state and local government but are earned through monthly employee and employer contributions over 20 to 30 years. CalPERS professionals manage the $225 billion trust fund, and 75 cents on every dollar of retirement benefits are investment earnings. The taxpayers contribute 14 cents for every dollar of benefits.

Blaming public employees for our fiscal crisis deflects from the central issue of the historic, and widening, divide between the rich and everyone else. The solution is to reform our inequitable and unsustainable system of taxation.

Let's stop pointing fingers at hard working public employees and begin to build a broad coalition to implement a responsible and progressive tax policy.

The author of this article is Martin J. Bennett, who serves as Co-Chair of the Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County and is a member of the California Federation of Teachers Local 1946.

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