It all started back in high school when I took a part-time job bagging groceries. When I received my first paycheck, my jaw dropped. Between union dues, the largest culprit, and FICA taxes, my paltry wage of $5.50 per hour fell to about $3.50 for each 60 minutes of labor. Thus began my skepticism of unions.
My suspicion grew worse when, as a graduate student at the University of Washington, I served as a teaching assistant and was heavily pressured to participate in a strike in support of TAs who felt they did not receive adequate benefits for their part-time jobs. To me, free tuition and a stipend were a pretty good deal for approximately 20 hours of work per week.
Several years later, while working for the House Democrats in Olympia, I again found myself on the opposite side of union activists who insisted that they receive the same pay increases voters had approved for a select group of public employees, namely teachers. At the time — this was during the recession of 2001-2002 when Washington and Oregon led the nation in unemployment rates — I felt fortunate to have a job.
In recent years, as I’ve watched labor unions, particularly those representing teachers, reflexively fight against reforms that would increase accountability and limit benefits, I’ve found myself aghast at the unwillingness of so many public employees to sacrifice during lean budget times. Add to that my recurring experience as a government employee at the state and federal level witnessing the many "retirement" parties for government employees who look entirely too young to retire, all the while knowing that such an option likely won’t exist for workers of my generation.
I am not saying that unions have no place in our society. The many low-wage workers represented by the SEIU are very much deserving of better pay and benefits. The many workers who pick our fruits and vegetables and prepare our meats absolutely deserve vigorous protections.
But government employees have it pretty good these days: high wages, extensive benefits, the near-impossibility of being fired, to name just a few pluses they enjoy. As a current federal employee, I have a hard time listening to my coworkers complain about a two-year pay freeze that isn’t really a freeze at all? Again, in this economy I’m just happy to have a job!
With more news coming out each day about devastating budget challenges at the federal, state and local level, it’s time for public employees and their union benefactors to make some concessions. What many people don’t yet realize is that these budget troubles were brought on in large part through repeated giveaways to public employees in the form of pension contributions, health care benefits, and other rewards. A recent study by Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management estimates the unfunded pension liabilities of municipalities at $574 billion and of states at $3.3 trillion.
Whether it’s chipping in more for health care costs or forgoing a few workdays per year, sacrifice is the only way out of this fiscal mess. For the sake of our economic future, public employees' unions need to adapt to this reality.