In a study they hoped would answer the question “Who gets paid more, state workers or those in the private sector?”, New York Times writers Michael Luo and Michael Cooper discovered that it depends a lot on whether you’re high-paid or low-paid, whether you have a college degree or not.
Generally speaking — though throughout they point out that there are exceptions whatever view you take of the data — what the reporters found in their Saturday, Feb. 26 article is that less-educated workers, those without college degrees, are paid better by state governments than comparable private sector workers. They wrote:
The clearest pattern to emerge is an educational divide: workers without college degrees tend to do better on state payrolls, while workers with college degrees tend to do worse.
Not surprisingly, there are a lot of factors involved. For example, the education level of a state’s population plays a significant role. Thus, in Washington state — with a high percentage of college-educated workers — the median wage for state employees with college degrees lags the private sector pay for comparably educated workers by almost 24 percent: $53,394 to $70,000.
For workers without college degrees, janitors, administrative assistants and the like, Washington’s state employees do better than their private sector peers, just as Luo and Cooper found was generally the case. Among those without college credentials, state workers’ median pay leads the private sector by 9.1 percent, $38,444 to $35,240.
The study commissioned by The New York Times did not try to evaluate the relative worth of private and public-sector health plans and pensions, so it’s not likely to put to rest the current debate. The charts showing median salaries and wages referred to in the story are here and readers can add their own assumptions about the worth of job security, health and pensions to the comparisons.
Reporter Andrew Garber also had an excellent overview of the state vs. private sector pay issue in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Garber’s story, specific to Washington state, has more detail and comparisons with the private sector on the worth of pensions and health benefits. It also referred to a Seattle Times article last year that found the same dichotomy based on education level reported by the New York Times.
Importantly, though, neither of these fine stories has a word about the decline of the labor movement in U.S. private sector employment over the past 40 years. That’s the nature of newspapers: good on the current facts, but unlikely, except maybe in op-eds, to explain why they are the current facts.
In this case, readers and voters, left lacking knowledge and some hypothesis about why private sector labor unions have declined, are vulnerable to anyone scapegoating public employees for local-government budget shortfalls.
I have a feeling that if someone sat through a semester of U.S. history in most of our high schools, they would emerge equally uninformed. (Readers are welcome to send passages from school history texts to prove this wrong; it would be good news.)
There are also a couple conclusions the New York Times writers did not draw from their data that nevertheless stand out:
The first is that state governments are doing a better job than the private sector in providing family-wage jobs for workers with less education. This is real evidence that the public sector unions are doing a good job, building middle-class wages to support middle class families as they did earlier in the private sector — before their decline during America’s rightward shift since 1970.
The second is that among state employees in every state, the income differences from top to bottom of the pay scale are smaller — a lot smaller given what we know about CEO and top management pay — than the differences in the private sector. I’d suggest that this produces a fairer, more equitable workplace with a greater sense of shared cause and community than may exist in private sector firms, where pay levels define a sharper worker-management split.
Who knows, maybe we’ll get past blaming public workers for the budget crises (caused by the Great Recession’s revenue crash, after all) and folks in the private sector will decide they need unions again.
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