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Robert Reich

Republican class warfare

Republicans pit private employees against public employees, to keep the middle classes in a battle while leaving the richest Americans safe.

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Yes, there’s cause for concern about unfunded pension liabilities in future years. They’re way too big. But it’s much the same in the private sector. The main reason for underfunded pensions in both public and private sectors is investment losses that occurred during the Great Recession. Before then, public pension funds had an average of 86 percent of all the assets they needed to pay future benefits — better than many private pension plans.

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The solution is no less to slash public pensions than it is to slash private ones. It’s for all employers to fully fund their pension plans.

The final Republican canard is that bargaining rights for public employees have caused state deficits to explode. In fact there’s no relationship between states whose employees have bargaining rights and states with big deficits. Some states that deny their employees bargaining rights - Nevada, North Carolina, and Arizona, for example, are running giant deficits of over 30 percent of spending. Many that give employees bargaining rights — Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Montana — have small deficits of less than 10 percent.

Public employees should have the right to bargain for better wages and working conditions, just like all employees do. They shouldn’t have the right to strike if striking would imperil the public, but they should at least have a voice. They often know more about whether public programs are working, or how to make them work better, than political appointees who hold their offices for only a few years.

Don’t get me wrong. When times are tough, public employees should have to make the same sacrifices as everyone else. And they are right now. Pay has been frozen for federal workers, and for many state workers across the country as well.

But isn’t it curious that when it comes to sacrifice, Republicans don’t include the richest people in America? To the contrary, they insist the rich should sacrifice even less, enjoying even larger tax cuts that expand public-sector deficits. That means fewer public services, and even more pressure on the wages and benefits of public employees.

It’s only average workers – both in the public and the private sectors – who are being called upon to sacrifice.

This is what the current Republican attack on public-sector workers is really all about. Their version of class warfare is to pit private-sector workers against public servants. They’d rather set average working people against one another – comparing one group’s modest incomes and benefits with another group’s modest incomes and benefits – than have Americans see that the top 1 percent is now raking in a bigger share of national income than at any time since 1928, and paying at a lower tax rate. And Republicans would rather you didn’t know they want to cut taxes on the rich even more.

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