Politico Sees Public Unions Under Fire

But adds to the problem it describes

Politico picks a good moment to write about the way public employee unions have landed in the crosshairs, as politicians confront budget deficits and look for ways to cut costs.

It’s a mood that’s been building across the country, and the Politico story smartly pulls several strands together:

Spurred by state budget crunches and an angry public mood, Republican and some Democratic leaders are focusing with increasing intensity on public workers and the unions that represent them, casting them as overpaid obstacles to good government and demanding cuts in their often-generous benefits.

Unfortunately, in making its case, the story adopts some of the language of those politicians it’s reporting about.
Take this description of public employee unions:

They’re the whipping boys for a new generation of governors who, thanks to a tanking economy and an assist from editorial boards, feel freer than ever to make political targets out of what was once a protected liberal class of teachers, cops, and other public servants.

“A protected liberal class?” That’s pretty loaded.

Politico points to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, calling him “the most florid voice for a calculated, national effort to fundamentally reshape the debate on the labor costs that account for the bulk of government spending at every level.”

But it’s too bad Politico didn’t do more to help readers weigh the math behind that statement, that labor costs “account for the bulk of government spending at every level.”

A CATO Institute report from January says that, in 2008, “wages and benefits of $1.1 trillion accounted for half of total state and local government spending.”

CATO is no fan of big government, but it points to Bureau of Economic Analysis stats to back up that claim. And, for state and local government, it makes some sense. Think of those labor-intensive public services that local governments provide, like education, police, and human services.

But it’s hard to fathom how it could be true at the federal level. It would have been good for Politico to offer some support for the assertion.

Politico also lets several politicians repeat that now familiar claim, that public sector employees make a lot more than those in the private sector:

“We have a new privileged class in America,” said Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who rescinded state workers’ collective bargaining power on his first day in office in 2006. “We used to think of government workers as underpaid public servants. Now they are better paid than the people who pay their salaries.”
While that might be technically correct, it’s something that gets repeated far too often, and explained far too little.

As John Schmitt explains in a recent paper for the Center for Economic and Policy Research:

The problem with these analyses is that state and local government workers have much higher levels of formal education and are older (and therefore generally more experienced) than workers in the private sector. When state and local government employees are compared to private-sector workers with similar characteristics, state and local workers actually earn 4 percent less, on average, than their private-sector counterparts.

Nice context, and something that could help readers separate the hype from the reality.

That said, Politico does well to explain the forces at play in the states. “First are the very real financial obligations imposed by their salaries, health benefits and—especially—their traditional, defined-benefit pension plans, which have been sweetened over the years in many states by legislators eager for the support of politically-powerful unions.”

And it notes the limit to that line of thinking:

But the immediate cause of the new spotlight on public sector unions is the collapse in tax revenues that came with the 2008 Wall Street crash, something that union leaders bitterly note is not their fault.

“It’s outrageous to blame a librarian – to blame a fireman for the financial mess that we find this country it,” the president of the American Federation of State County, and Municipal Employees, the largest national public workers union, Gerard McEntee, said. “We are the scapegoats in the states.”

As the story reports, union leaders have been surprised by the attacks. Perhaps that’s why the pols seems to be winning on language points. But that’s not a reason for the press to adopt those loaded terms, or let troublesome assertions go without the context readers need to make sense of them.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.