Government Service: Is the Pig Really So Fat?

In times of economic stress, government employees are heavily scrutinized, just as many people in the private sector are. But sacrificing a person’s job on a bean-counters’ altar should be the course of last resort, not the first, and not based on the fact employees belong to a union. However, as the scrutiny goes up, so do many of the famous myths of the “easy” life as a government employee.

Many believe unions bear the bulk of the problem regardless of the fact that some employees can’t strike. A union without the prospect of a strike, is pretty toothless. I believe I can speak with some authority on the issue because I was once a federal worker.

In my unionized shop, pay rates weren’t set by collective bargaining. The feds set them by comparisons with “equal” private sector jobs. I was a fully licensed aircraft mechanic. I rebuilt state of the art Navy F-14 fighters, engines, and components. My “equivalents” were unlicensed, low-skilled, and low-compensation floor workers at a local Mrs. Smith pie bakery. At the time, salaries for private sector aircraft mechanics were about 3X what the Apple Dumpling Gang got.

And fabulous benefits? Boy howdy! New workers received 1 week of vacation at the end of their first year. If illness or family emergencies left you short of time for the mandatory “vacation”,  you paid for the time you “wasted”.

In the Shallow End of the Social Security Pool
At the time, there was a de rigueur defined benefit pension similar to the private sector’s. During a hiatus in my government service, the pensions died and replaced by Social Security without benefit of a 401k style plan. Although I was grandfathered under the old pension system, the government required me to pay the equivalent amount of Social Security paid during my hiatus. Fair enough, but they’d only take a lump-sum payment and if you couldn’t pay that you went straight to the shallow end of the Social Security pool.

Health insurance? Proportionally, I paid far more for roughly equal insurance than I do today. So much in fact, I had enter the private sector when I got married because we couldn’t afford the insurance on a pie maker’s salary.

But perhaps the biggest issue was the work conditions. And even there, the union didn’t hold much sway. Employees were routinely subjected to treatment that would’ve guaranteed strikes, or big lawsuits, in the private sector.

For example, management removed doors from toilet stalls so they could see anyone with an unusual number of bouts with the squitters. In some shops, employees had to raise their hands and ask permission to take a dump like a third grader. Managers also attached magnets to bits of string and randomly tossed them onto people’s shoes to make sure they were steel-toed. But the last indignity was downright dangerous working conditions.

I worked mandatory 10-12 hour shifts, including many Saturdays, for months on end. My shop was a non-air conditioned, poorly ventilated room with outside temperatures running in the upper 90s and live steam pipes running under the floor. The average summertime temperature in the room averaged about 120 degrees. The government’s method for stemming the number of heat-related injuries was to offer salt pills served in open buckets.

We also inhaled atomized heptane and Freon. We were protected from the heptane only by an unsealed plastic baggy over the equipment and our skin with nothing at all (including gloves). Although told we needed no safety equipment, hazmat workers pumped out the waste tanks wearing full protective gear and oxygen masks (not simply respirators).

In the end, the union had no real effect on pay or any of these bizarre workplace rules.

American Jobs Fly Away
Eventually, I left government for the private sector. It was a good thing too. All but one of the Navy’s similar facilities closed shortly after I left and the work turned over to private companies. Oh, and maintenance for those F-14s? Much of it went off shore, leaving a potential wartime capability gap while exposing high-tech airplanes to easier espionage attempts. The decision lost tens of thousands of American jobs too. And unions? They couldn’t do a thing about it.

Yes, my government service was long ago. I’m sure much has changed, but the union wasn’t the sole problem then and it’s not the whole problem now. It’s a mistake to think every government worker lives in the lap of luxury or that mean unions harass and stymie the government at every turn.

Government workers are like workers in the private sector. They work hard. They sometimes put up with squalid work conditions and bad management.  They find themselves increasingly ill-equipped to live the middle class American dream, because the dream costs money. They understandably want to keep theirs – just as non-unionized workers aren’t flocking to front offices to voluntarily sacrifice their jobs to a CEO with bulging pockets who screws not only the taxpayers, but the workers as well.

I approve of examining spending cuts – clearly we need some. But, I’d also ask that the examination not be run by those with far better compensation and agendas far beyond rational budget cutting. I want a fair assessment, built on truth and honesty, by people who don’t have unreasonable demands and minds made up before they even look at things. I expect unions to recognize the challenges of deficit spending too. And if we need layoffs, we shouldn’t carry them out with a crude butcher knife in place of a good, sharp scalpel.

To do otherwise isn’t good for workers or the country.

Cross posted at The Omnipotent Poobah Speaks!

Government Service: Is the Pig Really So Fat?

In times of economic stress, government employees are heavily scrutinized, just as many people in the private sector are. But sacrificing a person’s job on a bean-counters’ altar should be the course of last resort, not the first, and not based on the fact employees belong to a union. However, as the scrutiny goes up, so do many of the famous myths of the “easy” life as a government employee.

Many believe unions bear the bulk of the problem regardless of the fact that some employees can’t strike. A union without the prospect of a strike, is pretty toothless. I believe I can speak with some authority on the issue because I was once a federal worker.

In my unionized shop, pay rates weren’t set by collective bargaining. The feds set them by comparisons with “equal” private sector jobs. I was a fully licensed aircraft mechanic. I rebuilt state of the art Navy F-14 fighters, engines, and components. My “equivalents” were unlicensed, low-skilled, and low-compensation floor workers at a local Mrs. Smith pie bakery. At the time, salaries for private sector aircraft mechanics were about 3X what the Apple Dumpling Gang got.

And fabulous benefits? Boy howdy! New workers received 1 week of vacation at the end of their first year. If illness or family emergencies left you short of time for the mandatory “vacation”,  you paid for the time you “wasted”.

In the Shallow End of the Social Security Pool
At the time, there was a de rigueur defined benefit pension similar to the private sector’s. During a hiatus in my government service, the pensions died and replaced by Social Security without benefit of a 401k style plan. Although I was grandfathered under the old pension system, the government required me to pay the equivalent amount of Social Security paid during my hiatus. Fair enough, but they’d only take a lump-sum payment and if you couldn’t pay that you went straight to the shallow end of the Social Security pool.

Health insurance? Proportionally, I paid far more for roughly equal insurance than I do today. So much in fact, I had enter the private sector when I got married because we couldn’t afford the insurance on a pie maker’s salary.

But perhaps the biggest issue was the work conditions. And even there, the union didn’t hold much sway. Employees were routinely subjected to treatment that would’ve guaranteed strikes, or big lawsuits, in the private sector.

For example, management removed doors from toilet stalls so they could see anyone with an unusual number of bouts with the squitters. In some shops, employees had to raise their hands and ask permission to take a dump like a third grader. Managers also attached magnets to bits of string and randomly tossed them onto people’s shoes to make sure they were steel-toed. But the last indignity was downright dangerous working conditions.

I worked mandatory 10-12 hour shifts, including many Saturdays, for months on end. My shop was a non-air conditioned, poorly ventilated room with outside temperatures running in the upper 90s and live steam pipes running under the floor. The average summertime temperature in the room averaged about 120 degrees. The government’s method for stemming the number of heat-related injuries was to offer salt pills served in open buckets.

We also inhaled atomized heptane and Freon. We were protected from the heptane only by an unsealed plastic baggy over the equipment and our skin with nothing at all (including gloves). Although told we needed no safety equipment, hazmat workers pumped out the waste tanks wearing full protective gear and oxygen masks (not simply respirators).

In the end, the union had no real effect on pay or any of these bizarre workplace rules.

American Jobs Fly Away
Eventually, I left government for the private sector. It was a good thing too. All but one of the Navy’s similar facilities closed shortly after I left and the work turned over to private companies. Oh, and maintenance for those F-14s? Much of it went off shore, leaving a potential wartime capability gap while exposing high-tech airplanes to easier espionage attempts. The decision lost tens of thousands of American jobs too. And unions? They couldn’t do a thing about it.

Yes, my government service was long ago. I’m sure much has changed, but the union wasn’t the sole problem then and it’s not the whole problem now. It’s a mistake to think every government worker lives in the lap of luxury or that mean unions harass and stymie the government at every turn.

Government workers are like workers in the private sector. They work hard. They sometimes put up with squalid work conditions and bad management.  They find themselves increasingly ill-equipped to live the middle class American dream, because the dream costs money. They understandably want to keep theirs – just as non-unionized workers aren’t flocking to front offices to voluntarily sacrifice their jobs to a CEO with bulging pockets who screws not only the taxpayers, but the workers as well.

I approve of examining spending cuts – clearly we need some. But, I’d also ask that the examination not be run by those with far better compensation and agendas far beyond rational budget cutting. I want a fair assessment, built on truth and honesty, by people who don’t have unreasonable demands and minds made up before they even look at things. I expect unions to recognize the challenges of deficit spending too. And if we need layoffs, we shouldn’t carry them out with a crude butcher knife in place of a good, sharp scalpel.

To do otherwise isn’t good for workers or the country.

Cross posted at The Omnipotent Poobah Speaks!

Weekly Audit: Wolf in Sheep's Clothing--The Myth of Fiscal Conservatism

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Fashionable pundits like to say that the Republican Party has shifted its focus from “social conservatism” (e.g., banning abortion, shoving gays back in the closet, teaching school children that humans and dinosaurs once walked the earth hand-in-claw) to fiscal conservatism (e.g., tax cuts for the rich, slashing social programs). But is that really true? Tim Murphy ofMother Jones argues that the old culture war issues never really went away. Rather, the Republicans have simply rephrased their social agenda in fiscal terms.

For example, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) is quite upfront about the fact that he hates Planned Parenthood because the group is the nation’s leading abortion provider. Yet, he seeks to de-fund the Planned Parenthood and the entire Title X Family Planning Program in the name of balancing the budget. Never mind that the federal money only goes toward birth control, not abortion, and research shows that every dollar spent on birth control saves $4 in Medicaid costs alone.

Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly surveys the current crop of GOP presidential hopefuls in Iowa and agrees that reports of the death of the culture war have been greatly exaggerated.

But the key takeaway here is that fiscal issues have largely been relegated to afterthought status. That’s just not what these right-wing activists — the ones who’ll largely dictate the outcome of the caucuses — are focused on. Indeed, even Ron Paul, after pandering to a home-school crowd last week, conceded, “I haven’t been asked too much about fiscal issues.”

Budget cuts

Sarah Babbage writes in TAPPED that Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress seem poised to grant an additional $20 billion in spending cuts for FY 2011, in addition to the $10 billion in cuts they’ve already pledged for this fiscal year. Babbage notes that, after weeks of negotiations, we’re right back to the $30 billion in cuts the GOP initially demanded. She warns that these cuts will have a trivial impact on the $1.6 trillion deficit, but they could have a devastating effect on the fragile economy.

Taxes for thee, but not GE

General Electric raked in $14.2 billion in profits last year, $5.1 billion of which came from the United States, yet the company paid $0 in U.S. income tax, Tara Lohan notes in AlterNet. Despite its healthy bottom line, and its sweet tax situation, GE is asking 15,000 unionized U.S. workers to make major concessions at the bargaining table. GE wants union members to give up defined benefit pension programs in exchange for defined contribution programs.

As we discussed last week in The Audit, defined benefit plans guarantee that a retiree will get a set percentage of her working salary for the rest of her life; defined contribution plans pay the worker a share of the revenue from a pool of investments. As the fine print always says, investments can decrease in value. So, if the stock market crashes the day before you retire, you’re out of luck.

Generation Debt

Higher education is supposed to be a stepping stone to a better standard of living, but with unemployment hovering around 10%, many college graduates are struggling to find jobs to pay their student loans. Aliya Karim argues in Campus Progress that the government should compel colleges and universities to be more transparent about the realities of student loan debt:

The government should require colleges to provide information about graduation rates, college costs, and financial aid packages on college websites, enrollment forms, and guidebooks. This information should be easy to find and understand. Without such information available to them, students may not be aware that their future college has a graduation rate lower than 20 percent or that its graduates face close to $30,000 in debt.

The government has a lot of leverage over public and private schools because so much student debt is guaranteed by taxpayers. Greater transparency will enable students to make more informed choices, and give colleges with low graduation rates a greater incentive to clean up their act.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy bymembers of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The MulchThe Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Hostile Takeover Threat Spurs Concessions from Michigan Unions

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Michigan’s new Emergency Manager Law is already forcing major concessions from unions. The law gives the governor the power to declare a city insolvent and appoint an emergency manager with virtually unlimited power to reorganize every aspect of city business, including dissolving the city entirely. The emergency manager even has the power to terminate collective bargaining agreements.

As a result of these expanded new powers, public employees unions in some Michigan municipalities are already making large preemptive concessions to keep their cities from tripping any of the “triggers” in the new law that might give the governor an opening to send in a union-bustingemergency manager, Eartha Jane Melzer reports in the Michigan Messenger.

In Flint, the firefighters’ union agreed to increase contributions to health insurance and give up holiday pay and night shift differentials. Flint Firefighters Union President Raul Garcia told the Wall Street Journal that these concessions were driven by fear of a state takeover of Flint. “I would rather give concessions that I would like than have an [emergency financial manager] or something of that magnitude come in and say this is what you are going to do,” Garcia said.

The new law also gives the Emergency Manager the power to privatize prisons, Melzer notes.

Detroit grows green

The citizens of Detroit aren’t waiting around for an emergency manager to take over. The city’s industrial economy is dying, but its grassroots economy is stirring to life, Jenny Lee and Paul Abowd report in In These Times. Detroit residents have been growing their own food in town for decades, but recently activists and the city have joined forces to link many small producers into a network that will provide food security for the city.

Wal-Mart and wage discrimination

Next week, the Supreme Court will take up the case of 100 women who are suing Wal-Mart for wage discrimination. As Scott Lemieux explains in The American Prospect, the Court will decide whether these women can band together to sue the nation’s largest retailer, or whether each must sue the firm individually.

Lemieux argues that, for the sake of women’s rights at work, it is very important that these Wal-Mart employees be allowed to sue together instead of one at a time:

Given the compelling stories these individual women can tell, does it matter whether they can file suit collectively? Absolutely, for at least two reasons. First of all, only a class-action suit can properly create a record of the systematic gender discrimination at Wal-Mart. Any individual case can be dismissed as an anomaly or a misunderstanding, but the volume of complaints makes clear that gender discrimination was embedded deeply within the culture of the corporation, a very relevant fact for a discrimination suit.

Litigation is expensive and time-consuming, for the individuals and for the court system. Forcing victims of discrimination to sue one by one makes it less likely that they will seek justice, especially if they’re suing because they were underpaid in the first place. Wal-Mart claims that the class is too large to be allowed to proceed, and that the women couldn’t possibly have similar enough claims. But as Lemieux points out, the class is huge because Wal-Mart is huge.

War and the deficit

Jamelle Bouie writes at TAPPED, in response to the United States’ new military commitments in Libya:

I just wish we could at least acknowledge the obvious truth: conservatives don’t care about deficits but will use them to cut spending on poor people. When it comes to things they like — wars, for instance — they’re willing to pay any price.

The U.S. fired 110 Tomahawk Missiles at Libya on Saturday, at an estimated total cost of $81 million, or 33 times the annual federal funding for National Public Radio.

Sally Kohn of TAPPED notes that the United States scraped together $2.3 million worth of “blood money” to pay off the families of the victims of Raymond Davis, a rogue CIA operative who shot and killed two men who tried to rob him in Pakistan. Laura Flanders of GRITtv calculates that $2.3 million ransom for a single killer would have paid the salaries of 45 Wisconsin public school teachers for a year.

Public pensions 101

We often hear that public pensions are unfunded. On the Breakdown, Chris Hayes of The Nation asks economist Dean Baker what this actually means. Baker explains that s0-called “defined benefit” pensions have become rare in the private sector, but remain relatively common in the public sector. A defined benefit pension guarantees the pensioner a certain income. Most private sector pensions are so-called “defined contribution” plans, which means that employer puts aside a certain amount of money each month for the employee, but there’s no guarantee how much return the pensioner will eventually get on that investment.

A state pension fund is considered unfunded if the assets the fund has today aren’t sufficient to cover the defined benefits that are due to workers over the next 30 years. Baker notes that many funds are a lot healthier than they look because their values were calculated at the nadir of the stock market in 2009. The market has since made up a large percentage of that ground. A handful of states were mismanaging their pension funds, but most states have been responsible.

Ethical outlaws

Bea is a manager of a big-box chain store in Maine. The company pays her staff between $6 and $8 an hour and many are struggling. Even as she tries to keep a professional atmosphere in the store, Bea has been known to bend the rules to help an employee in need, as Lisa Dodson describes in YES! Magazine:

When one of her employees couldn’t afford to buy her daughter a prom dress, Bea couldn’t shake the feeling that she was implicated by the injustice. “Let’s just say … we made some mistakes with our prom dress orders last year,” she told me. “Too many were ordered, some went back. It got pretty confusing.” And Edy? “She knocked them dead” at the prom.

Andrew, a manager in the Midwest is quietly padding his employees’ paychecks because he knows their wages aren’t enough to live on. Andrew knows he might be accused of stealing, but he does it anyway because the alternative is unthinkable.

Dodson interviewed hundreds of low- and middle-income people about the economy between 2001 and 2008. Along the way, she stumbled on what she calls “the moral underground,” a world where managers bend the rules at corporate expense to enable their low-wage staff to get by. It is legal to pay people less than a living wage, but increasing numbers of people like Bea and Arthur have decided that the situation is morally unacceptable, and quietly acted accordingly.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy bymembers of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The MulchThe Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Weekly Audit: Hostile Takeover Threat Spurs Concessions from Michigan Unions

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Michigan’s new Emergency Manager Law is already forcing major concessions from unions. The law gives the governor the power to declare a city insolvent and appoint an emergency manager with virtually unlimited power to reorganize every aspect of city business, including dissolving the city entirely. The emergency manager even has the power to terminate collective bargaining agreements.

As a result of these expanded new powers, public employees unions in some Michigan municipalities are already making large preemptive concessions to keep their cities from tripping any of the “triggers” in the new law that might give the governor an opening to send in a union-bustingemergency manager, Eartha Jane Melzer reports in the Michigan Messenger.

In Flint, the firefighters’ union agreed to increase contributions to health insurance and give up holiday pay and night shift differentials. Flint Firefighters Union President Raul Garcia told the Wall Street Journal that these concessions were driven by fear of a state takeover of Flint. “I would rather give concessions that I would like than have an [emergency financial manager] or something of that magnitude come in and say this is what you are going to do,” Garcia said.

The new law also gives the Emergency Manager the power to privatize prisons, Melzer notes.

Detroit grows green

The citizens of Detroit aren’t waiting around for an emergency manager to take over. The city’s industrial economy is dying, but its grassroots economy is stirring to life, Jenny Lee and Paul Abowd report in In These Times. Detroit residents have been growing their own food in town for decades, but recently activists and the city have joined forces to link many small producers into a network that will provide food security for the city.

Wal-Mart and wage discrimination

Next week, the Supreme Court will take up the case of 100 women who are suing Wal-Mart for wage discrimination. As Scott Lemieux explains in The American Prospect, the Court will decide whether these women can band together to sue the nation’s largest retailer, or whether each must sue the firm individually.

Lemieux argues that, for the sake of women’s rights at work, it is very important that these Wal-Mart employees be allowed to sue together instead of one at a time:

Given the compelling stories these individual women can tell, does it matter whether they can file suit collectively? Absolutely, for at least two reasons. First of all, only a class-action suit can properly create a record of the systematic gender discrimination at Wal-Mart. Any individual case can be dismissed as an anomaly or a misunderstanding, but the volume of complaints makes clear that gender discrimination was embedded deeply within the culture of the corporation, a very relevant fact for a discrimination suit.

Litigation is expensive and time-consuming, for the individuals and for the court system. Forcing victims of discrimination to sue one by one makes it less likely that they will seek justice, especially if they’re suing because they were underpaid in the first place. Wal-Mart claims that the class is too large to be allowed to proceed, and that the women couldn’t possibly have similar enough claims. But as Lemieux points out, the class is huge because Wal-Mart is huge.

War and the deficit

Jamelle Bouie writes at TAPPED, in response to the United States’ new military commitments in Libya:

I just wish we could at least acknowledge the obvious truth: conservatives don’t care about deficits but will use them to cut spending on poor people. When it comes to things they like — wars, for instance — they’re willing to pay any price.

The U.S. fired 110 Tomahawk Missiles at Libya on Saturday, at an estimated total cost of $81 million, or 33 times the annual federal funding for National Public Radio.

Sally Kohn of TAPPED notes that the United States scraped together $2.3 million worth of “blood money” to pay off the families of the victims of Raymond Davis, a rogue CIA operative who shot and killed two men who tried to rob him in Pakistan. Laura Flanders of GRITtv calculates that $2.3 million ransom for a single killer would have paid the salaries of 45 Wisconsin public school teachers for a year.

Public pensions 101

We often hear that public pensions are unfunded. On the Breakdown, Chris Hayes of The Nation asks economist Dean Baker what this actually means. Baker explains that s0-called “defined benefit” pensions have become rare in the private sector, but remain relatively common in the public sector. A defined benefit pension guarantees the pensioner a certain income. Most private sector pensions are so-called “defined contribution” plans, which means that employer puts aside a certain amount of money each month for the employee, but there’s no guarantee how much return the pensioner will eventually get on that investment.

A state pension fund is considered unfunded if the assets the fund has today aren’t sufficient to cover the defined benefits that are due to workers over the next 30 years. Baker notes that many funds are a lot healthier than they look because their values were calculated at the nadir of the stock market in 2009. The market has since made up a large percentage of that ground. A handful of states were mismanaging their pension funds, but most states have been responsible.

Ethical outlaws

Bea is a manager of a big-box chain store in Maine. The company pays her staff between $6 and $8 an hour and many are struggling. Even as she tries to keep a professional atmosphere in the store, Bea has been known to bend the rules to help an employee in need, as Lisa Dodson describes in YES! Magazine:

When one of her employees couldn’t afford to buy her daughter a prom dress, Bea couldn’t shake the feeling that she was implicated by the injustice. “Let’s just say … we made some mistakes with our prom dress orders last year,” she told me. “Too many were ordered, some went back. It got pretty confusing.” And Edy? “She knocked them dead” at the prom.

Andrew, a manager in the Midwest is quietly padding his employees’ paychecks because he knows their wages aren’t enough to live on. Andrew knows he might be accused of stealing, but he does it anyway because the alternative is unthinkable.

Dodson interviewed hundreds of low- and middle-income people about the economy between 2001 and 2008. Along the way, she stumbled on what she calls “the moral underground,” a world where managers bend the rules at corporate expense to enable their low-wage staff to get by. It is legal to pay people less than a living wage, but increasing numbers of people like Bea and Arthur have decided that the situation is morally unacceptable, and quietly acted accordingly.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy bymembers of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The MulchThe Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

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