NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Public Employees vs. the Public Will

October 13, 2010

In 2009, the Gallup research group reported that for the first time in 70 years of polling, a majority of Americans opposed labor unions.  An April Pew study showed that favorable ratings for unions had plummeted from 58 percent in 2007 to 40 percent in 2010.  In the same month, the Republican research group Resurgent Republic found more than two-thirds opposition to current levels of compensation for government employees, says Tim Cavanaugh, a senior editor at Reason Magazine.

This discontent is not the sort of generalized outrage that stops short of a willingness to shed blood.  

  • Rasmussen Reports in July noted that 69 percent of its respondents would not be willing to pay more taxes in order to avoid layoffs of state workers.
  • A mere 19 percent were willing.
  • This is particularly surprising because just three months earlier, Rasmussen had found higher support for public-sector unions, at 53 percent, than for private-sector unions, at 49 percent.

Yet none of the hullabaloo has amounted to a hill of beans against the taxpayer-funded power and advantages public workers have amassed.  Those remain in place, and it is getting harder than ever to challenge them, says Cavanaugh.  

In those places where reforms to taxpayer pension commitments have been succeeding, it is usually because the stakes are so small.

  • Michigan is trying to encourage education burnouts to retire by allowing teachers to increase the multiplier that determines the size of their pension, while requiring teachers to contribute more toward their retiree medical benefits.
  • But under pressure from the Michigan Education Association, the state has also placed charter school teachers into its troubled defined benefit plan, and it failed to make a permanent reduction in benefits for new hires.
  • The result is that costs may actually increase under the reform.

Perhaps these small struggles are part of a glass-half-full story, though none of the reforms come close to plugging even half of the gaping commitments states have made to public workers.

Source: Tim Cavanaugh, "Public Employees vs. the Public Will," Reason Magazine, October 2010.

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