The Enormous Cost of Public Unions

February 18, 2011

by Jay Ambrose, Real Clear Politics

The enemy within. That’s what Robert F. Kennedy called the then corrupt Teamsters union in the title of a 1960 book. Just maybe it’s time to use that phrase again, referring not to one union especially, but to a whole bunch of them, and employing the words in political speeches, debate and commentary as a rallying cry.

The bunch is those representing public employees. They constitute an extraordinarily powerful special interest that could all but bankrupt any number of local and state governments and vastly increase federal spending.

Why? So members can live much better on average than those of us in the private sector.

To get a better idea of how this works, meet Hugo Tassone, a Yonkers police officer who retired three years ago at age 44 earning a salary of $74,000 a year. Now receiving an annual pension of $101,333, he raised the amount to that sum by working scads of overtime in his last year on the job, it’s reported.

That’s legal, and he defends himself in a front-page, New York Times story by saying that a cop’s work is difficult, that he took on those duties knowing he could retire after 20 years and that inflation will eat into the large amount as he gets older.

Fair enough from his perspective, but hardly fair to taxpayers in a state that now boasts 3,700 retired public employees with annual pensions paying in excess of $100,000, according to the Times. Wait a minute, though. The left coast beats that.

A Wall Street Journal opinion piece of some months back notes that in California, where public pension costs have increased by an amazing 2,000 percent over the past decade, there are some 15,000 retired public employees taking in more than $100,000. Other interesting information relayed in the article by Steven Greenhut of the Pacific Research Institute: Some categories of workers can retire at 50 with 90 percent of the final year’s pay on a pension that is inflation-adjusted. And the state’s unfunded pension liability was put at $63.5 billion in a 2008 report.

We’ve talked about the right and left coasts. The middle is not in such good shape, either. According to an investigation by newspapers in Ohio referred to by a Boston Globe columnist, governments in that state are forking out $4.1 billion a year in pensions that have been increasing by $700 million a year. Total unfunded pension liabilities in the country are in the trillions and governments have no way of paying for them without exorbitant tax increases. It’s largely the work of the enemy within.

Last year, it was widely noted, public sector unions pulled off a stunner, gathering in more union members than the total in the much larger private sector. More than a third of all public employees are now union members, compared to the private percentage of 7.2. Abetted of course by irresponsible office holders often eager for their political support, these public sector unions have done far more to indulge their members than helping to concoct pensions of a kind hard to locate in private employment.

Read assessments of what’s going on, and you discover that the wages and benefits of federal employees in eight out of 10 occupations examined by USA Today are considerably higher than for the same occupations in the private sector. That public sector jobs were increasing during the worst of the recession while the losses in the private sector still added up to millions. That benefits and compensation for already pampered public employees have been scooting well past private increments even as productivity growth in the federal government has been lagging.

The cost of all this is enormous and unaffordable. Among the intriguing answers suggested by some observers are to freeze federal salaries and even have President Obama revoke a JFK executive order allowing the existence of federal employee unions. He is himself a union cheerleader and won’t do it, of course, but it sounds good to me.

Originally published June 11, 2010 at RealClearPolitics.com

Scripps Howard News Service

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