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How earnings for unionized public employees compare with private sector

In the fight for balanced budgets vs. benefits for public employees, what's fair and what's politics?

By Ron SchererStaff writer / February 28, 2011

Protesters filled the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Feb. 18 in response to the governor’s proposed bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers

Max Gersh/The Rockford Register-Star/AP

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With state and local budgets now stretched like bubble gum, governors and legislators are asking how much they can spend on their workers. Many lawmakers are reassessing benefits such as pensions and free health care. Such issues especially took off in Wisconsin, where the governor has challenged the power of the unions to engage in collective bargaining over benefits.

Some surveys indicate the time could be ripe for change. Sixty-four percent of voters oppose public employee unions, according to a poll by Clarus Research Group, which is based in Washington. For many people taking that stand, it goes hand in hand with aims of reducing government budget deficits and instituting more fiscal responsibility.

IN PICTURES: Wisconsin protest signs

"It's becoming increasingly clear public workers' benefits are out of touch with the private sector and need to be modernized and right-sized," says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics in West Chester, Pa.

The unions and their supporters push back by saying they are not overcompensated and are mainly just middle-class people trying to make a living.

"What you are seeing in states like Wisconsin and New Jersey is the governors talking of shared sacrifice. But by that, they mean sacrifice by the nurses, the firefighters, the policemen, not the extremely wealthy among us," says Alison Omens, a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO in Washington.

Unions and their supporters also see themselves being made scapegoats for bad management, such as unfunded pension funds. "The politicians have not lived up to their end of the bargain. That is the real problem," Ms. Omens says.

Yet those opposed to public employee unions include not only Republicans and independents, but also some Democrats, says Ron Faucheux, president of Clarus.

"So when you add that up, it seems like a big opportunity for the Republican side," Mr. Faucheux says. "It seems tailor-made to be a big part of the 2012 dialogue."

The 2012 election could be affected by unions in several ways. In 2008, they supplied get-out-the-vote troops, helping secure Barack Obama's victory.

Now, three of the states considering legislation to diminish public employees' bargaining power – Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin – are swing states, points out Ruben Garcia, a professor at the California Western School of Law in San Diego.

"To the extent it takes away the unions' voice in the next election, it will have political ramifications," he says.

Women and minorities make up a significant part of the government workforce. So any paring of government compensation could exacerbate the pay gap with white males, some say.

Still, many voters are appalled by the salaries and benefits that some government employees receive. Last year in Nassau County, N.Y., the average salary, plus overtime and benefits, for a police officer was $182,678. In Wisconsin in 2009, one electrician at the State Fair Park earned $123,213. In California last year, the chief sergeant-at-arms in the state Senate grossed $155,904.

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