GOVERNMENT WORKERS FIGHT STEREOTYPES

by David P. Rebovich A few days before the constitutional deadline for the approval of a new state budget and a week after the big rally by government workers at the State House, I met with members of the executive board of AFSCME Council 73 at the union’s conclave at the Princeton Hyatt. The meeting was at the request of a long-time friend, Gerard Meara, the veteran executive director of Council 73 and a well-known figure in political circles in Trenton and central Jersey generally. Meara explained that AFSCME’s members, who work in state, county and municipal agencies and private firms (Rider University’s administrative assistants and clerical personnel are represented by AFSCME), are angry that they are being stereotyped by some politicians and media outlets as part of what’s wrong with government in New Jersey today and blamed for high government spending and taxes. That misperception can influence the kinds of policies and politicians citizens support and can negatively affect not just AFSCME workers but program delivery and the quality of life in the Garden State. However, changing public opinion about government workers will not be easy these days for several reasons. These include the decline in private sector unionism, large dislocations in the economy that have made private sector employment unstable, slow growth in private sector wages and decreases in benefits, increases in public sector employment and hikes in taxes, widespread concern about government waste, fraud and inefficiency, and questions about the effectiveness and the very need for certain government programs. In addition, there have long been questions about whether some civil service regulations have outlived their usefulness and protect workers who in the private sector would be seriously disciplined or dismissed. Then there is the matter of the political influence of government workers and the notion that politicians kowtow to them before thinking about the needs of the general public. That may well have been the impression that New Jerseyans had when they watched or read news accounts of the June 19th rally by government workers in Trenton. AFSCME joined with the CWA and the state AFL-CIO to express support for Governor Corzine’s proposal to increase the state sales tax by one cent and to contribute $1.3 billion to the government workers pension fund. The union workers were also there to protest a proposal by state Senator Steve Sweeney and Assemblymen Jerry Green and Paul Moriarty that state employees give back fifteen percent of their total compensation in order to help balance the budget. Polls showed that most New Jerseyans do not support any state worker give-backs while their contracts are in effect and do agree that the pension fund should be shored up by state officials. That said, a strong majority of folks here believed that the state budget deficit should be closed by making more cuts in spending, not by raising taxes. Those cuts would presumably include some government jobs. Indeed, it must be surprising to citizens that despite the fact that New Jersey state government has faced recurring deficits of $4 billion to $5 billion in the last five years, there have not been any major layoffs of government employees. Even Corzine, the former CEO who knows about private sector downsizing, plans to reduce the 82,000 state government workforce by only 1,000 and that by attrition and retirement. Nonetheless, while the Governor claims to be ridding state government of waste and inefficiency, residents will have to pay some $2 billion more in taxes. No wonder the new state budget has been called friendly to government workers and unfriendly to taxpayers. And why not many of the latter were sympathetic to those folks rallying for the sales tax hike. When government worker union leaders and the rank and file complained that the new budget should not be balanced on their backs, this could be interpreted to mean that the budget should be balanced on the backs of private citizens regardless of their financial situation or political interests. And, these folks have also seen property taxes increases by 30 percent in the last five years due in part because of frozen levels of state aid to schools and municipalities. In this same period the state government workforce rose by 10,000, employees in all levels of government increased by 59,000, and the average salary of state employees went from $45,000 to $54,000. In the meantime, New Jersey’s economy experienced problems, especially a decline in the number of good paying jobs. While private sector companies continued their downsizing practices, remaining employees found themselves having to pay more for health care insurance – employer funded family coverage is largely a thing of the past – and for their own retirement plans. Nonetheless, government workers still have good health insurance (yes, with larger deductibles and co-pays), guaranteed pensions, paid vacations, as many as 17 paid holidays, a dozen or more sick days, and the ability to retire at age 55. With a compensation package like this, government workers should have been celebrating in Trenton last month, not protesting. Unless, that is, you are a government worker who provides direct services to needy or demanding clients and don’t make much money by public or private sector standards. That describes most of the folks represented by AFSCME, people who work in state institutions serving the sick and disabled, in corrections facilities, improvement and highway authorities, the judicial system and county and municipal governments. In my meeting with them, the AFSCME Council 73 board members made several points about the folks they represent that are rarely covered by the press. For starters, government workers at all levels do not want extra credit for doing their jobs as much as they their just due! They resent being demonized by politicians and some members of the media. Yes, there are problems in government operations and legitimate concerns about spending, waste, and the quality of services. But government workers and their unions see themselves as part of the solution of making government operations and programs more effective. Many AFSCME workers provide essential services at all levels of government that nearly every citizen and family benefits from at one time or another. Those serving in state institutions have positions that entail 24/7 coverage under challenging circumstances that require patience, discretion, compassion, and the capacity for emotionally and sometimes physically demanding work. Many AFSCME workers earn $25,000 to $30,000 a year, a fact that gets lost in the average salary figures cited above. And, members typically pay into their pension and have deductibles and co-pays for their health care plans. In addition, the workload of many individual employees has increased due to attrition and budget freezes in many agencies. Why then, one AFSCME leader rhetorically asked, can workers be demonized when “…their only concern is showing up for work every day because someone (i.e., elected officials) said that the work is necessary and needs to be done?” That’s a good point. So too is the common sense claim that government workers, like anyone else, want appropriate compensation and benefits for their efforts. This includes a recognition that employees be rewarded for their years of service and that New Jersey has a high cost of living. Said another AFSCME leader, “If you are going to scapegoat a large number of people in government service, you need to specifically identify a large number of positions that are not necessary.” However, citizens elect politicians who promise to pass laws to create programs that the public supports in principle but then complain about when the realize that the programs have to be paid for by taxpayers. On these terms, citizens may want to channel their frustration at their elected officials for promising a lot without explaining the costs involved. And, for supporting certain practices, like pension double dipping, and high levels of spending on patronage positions that do not contribute directly to service delivery. Unionized government workers are usually quick to recommend cutting patronage jobs when there is talk about reducing the workforce. The AFSCME officials with whom I spoke were no different but did admit that in a large workforce there are a “few bad apples,” union members or not. These few provide fodder for politicians and talk-show hosts who take to blasting government workers generally, something that the AFSCME folks believe reached a peak this budget season. But, the AFSCME leaders assert that the union and its members are absolutely for supporting rules, regulations and workload requirements in their contracts and for dealing with “goof-offs” who violate their contracts, fail the public, and give government workers a bad name. As such, AFSCME is committed to good public administration and doing what it takes to improve service delivery and make it cost effective. Now that’s a message that some politicians did not pay attention to this budget season, and one that union leaders should try to communicate to them and to the general public. It would not be a surprise if many New Jerseyans were sympathetic to AFSCME’s position once they understood what their workers do and how much they are paid. However, the same sentiment may not hold for other government workers, appointed or unionized, who make $75,000 a year or more. There are about 13,000 such state workers who fall into the category, including 8,500 in unions. Then there is the simple fact that private sector retirement, health care, paid holidays, sick days and vacation plans are no where near as good as what public sector employees enjoy. Besides costs, there is the the question of equity. Should taxpayers pay for government employee benefits that they themselves don’t receive in their own jobs? Along with escalating costs to taxpayers, this is a reason why the legislature and the governor will look at the pension and benefits of state workers this summer with an eye toward reform. In that process, let’s hope that lawmakers remember those who aren’t paid a lot and the benefits that they literally cannot afford to lose. David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMAPIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine and is a member of CQPolitics.com’s Board of Advisors that provides weekly commentary on national political developments.

GOVERNMENT WORKERS FIGHT STEREOTYPES