Public employees used to be known as civil servants, and the way things are going that label is becoming more and more accurate. The 5 million people employed by state governments and the 14 million employed by local governments are under attack in a variety of ways, and the U.S. Supreme Court may soon provide the crowning blow.
Going after public employees — even firefighters and other first responders — became a popular sport in the wake of the Republican gubernatorial victories of 2010. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his allies in the legislature defied mass protests (photo) and pushed through a law gutting public employee collective bargaining rights. Tennessee and Idaho enacted laws restricting bargaining rights for public schoolteachers. Ohio’s legislature curbed those rights for all state employees, but the move was repealed in a 2011 referendum.
At the same time, fiscal austerity measures led to widespread layoffs even among those public workers who did not lose their union protections. Between 2009 and 2013 state and local governments shed around half a million jobs, which has been a blow not just to those let go but also to the national economy. The private sector recovery has been held back by the ongoing slump in much of the public sector.
There are other pernicious forces at work. A new report by In The Public Interest describes the ways in which the outsourcing of public functions “sets off a downward spiral in which reduced worker wages and benefits can hurt the local economy and overall stability of middle and working class communities.” Using examples involving functions such as nursing, food service, trash collection and prisons, the report brings together data showing how job quality can plummet after the work is contracted out. For example, it notes that private-sector trash collectors earn around 40 percent less than their public sector counterparts.
Wages are not the only way in which privatized jobs are inferior. Slashing retirement benefits is one of the key ways that outsourcing companies achieve “savings.” Those who remain on public payrolls are also finding their pensions under assault. Led to believe that retirement costs for government workers are out of control, governors and legislators in numerous states have been moving to cut benefits, tighten eligibility requirements and push now hires into 401(k)-style defined contribution plans instead of traditional and more secure defined-benefit coverage.
As if all this were not bad enough, public employee unions are facing a legal challenge that could undermine their ability to survive. The Supreme Court is expected to rule this month on a case called Harris v. Quinn, which started out as a narrow dispute over the obligation of home health care workers to pay agency fees to unions that bargain on their behalf.
That case was concocted by the vehemently anti-union National Right to Work Foundation, which by the time the matter was heard by the Supreme Court in January was arguing that decades of settled law on the collective bargaining rights of all state and local employees should be scrapped.
This position was so audacious that even Justice Scalia seemed to have a problem with it. Yet other conservatives on the court as well as the man-in-the-middle Justice Kennedy seemed to be open to the idea. This could set the stage for a reprise of what happened in Citizens United: the transformation of a narrow case into a broad ruling with disastrous consequences.
The consequences being sought by the “right to work” crowd go far beyond the enfeeblement of public sector unions. They also want to dismantle the political influence of public sector unions, which are a key source of support for the Democratic Party and for progressive public policy. As Jay Riestenberg and Mary Bottari point out in PR Watch, the National Right to Work Committee has long had deep connections with rightwing players ranging from the John Birch Society to the Koch Brothers.
The ties with the latter are an indication that the “right to work” forces are not hurting for money. While enjoying their own solid funding, they are seeking to undermine the money flows which unions depend on to pursue their mission. In an era in which, as the Supreme Court has declared, money is free speech, the Right is doing everything in its power to silence workers and their representatives.