My View: Don't scapegoat public service workers for financial woes
Let's use facts in the debate over public services.
The attack on Wisconsin's workers has dangerous consequences for middle-class workers everywhere. Gov. Scott Walker's extremism may be the most hateful example of the war on public unions, but it is not an isolated incident.
Many critics are using New York's budget crisis — Albany's $9 billion deficit — to scapegoat public workers. Attacks come mainly from business-backed organizations concerned more with Wall Street interests than those of Main Street.
Financial chicanery and corporate excess are excused to clear the field for a misleading narrative that denigrates frontline public workers and misrepresents facts about salaries, pensions and other benefits. Frontline state and municipal workers were not engaged in risky financial schemes that led to the global financial meltdown.
Who are public service workers? Nurses and medical workers taking care of you and your family; plow operators clearing roads in the worst of conditions so you can get to work and keep the state's economy going; school bus drivers and lunch ladies helping to provide a safe and healthy school experience for your children; technicians who test and protect your air and water — to name just a few jobs.
Workers like these, represented by CSEA, earn around $40,000 a year. State workers and most local government workers in New York pay toward their health insurance. Nearly all contribute toward their pensions, which average $14,000.
Those who advocate moving public employees from a defined benefit plan to a 401(k) type plan as a money-saving measure ignore that this would leave future security at the mercy of the stock market. Under a defined benefit plan, there is a guaranteed payout based on a formula that includes years of service and salary. A defined contribution plan means there is simply a set amount invested and the benefit at retirement depends on how well your investments performed. Defined contribution could also cost taxpayers more to administer.
When Wall Street was booming during the 1990s, state and municipal governments paid almost nothing into the retirement system, while workers continued to contribute 3 percent of their salaries each year. Recent reforms enacted because of stock market volatility now require minimum employer contributions in good times and bad. Yet, this responsible reform is at the heart of criticism of pension costs. The minimum requirement lessens the likelihood of a pension shortfall in New York.
New York's eight public employee pension systems are faring better than many pension systems nationally. They do have some issues that should be addressed such as padding and double-dipping. No one should be scamming the pension system — and it should be stopped — but it is not the majority of public service workers. A radical overhaul is not in the interest of either public employees or New York taxpayers.
Another favorite target for misrepresentation is the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law. Triborough simply maintains the terms of expired contracts (no, it does not give raises after contracts have expired) until a new agreement is reached. Since public employees are prohibited from striking in New York, Triborough forces good-faith negotiating. Without it, management could simply impose its terms after a contract has expired. Unchecked power will not mean better management or better government.
New York's financial problems are very real. Public service workers did not cause these problems. Beating up on people who are earning their paycheck week by week delivering services to New Yorkers will not make things better.
We live and work in every community in this state and want a better New York for all. That can only happen if working people are treated with fairness and respect based on actual facts.
Danny Donohue is president of the CSEA.