Wayne O'Leary

Savaging the Public Sector

When it comes to the wonderful world of work, there is evidently no yin without a yang. Upbeat employment reports for early spring suggest that most of the millions of private-sector jobs lost in the Great Recession, which began a little over six years ago, have finally been gained back in the slow-motion economic recovery. That’s the good news; the bad news is those job gains have been substantially offset by simultaneous job losses in the public sector.

Between June 2009 (when the recession technically ended) and May 2012, the first three years of recovery, 3.1 million new jobs were created in the private economy, but serious attrition in government payrolls cut the overall expansion to just 2.5 million. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the proportionate drop in public employment was 2.7%, an anomaly for the post-1950 period, which has normally produced a 5.9% increase in public jobs within three years of the start of a recessionary recovery, keeping pace with revival and expansion in the general economy; that’s a negative differential of almost 9%.

In our latest claw-back from recession, the difference amounts to a full one-half of 1% in the prevailing overall unemployment rate, which would be lower by that amount had the lost government jobs not been allowed to evaporate. This departure from the historic norm is no accident, and it’s not a product of random economic fortune; instead, it’s the result of a deliberate policy by those in the seats of power. More specifically, it’s the desired outcome of our friends the Republicans, who control the majority of political jurisdictions outside of Washington, as well as the revenue-raising branch of Congress itself.

From the official end of the Great Recession in 2009 to mid-2012, federal employment managed to remain roughly static (down by 52,000), while the states and localities saw 627,000 jobs disappear. Things could have been worse; the Obama stimulus package temporarily saved 30 to 40 percent of threatened state and municipal positions by spending $140 billion through fiscal 2009-11. That money is now gone, and since the 2010 elections, GOP-generated austerity has also begun to chip away at federal employment. All told, various analyses indicate that as of last spring, four years into the “recovery,” budget cuts at the federal, state, and local levels combined had cost between 720,000 and 750,000 government jobs.

By far, the worst impact (80% of all public-sector job losses) has been at the local level, where officials depend on state and federal support that is no longer forthcoming. A half-million municipal employees — teachers, firefighters, police, clerks, counselors, librarians, park personnel, janitors — saw their jobs eliminated in the two and a half years beginning June 2010. Hardest hit was public education, the supposed key to America’s future, which had sacrificed nearly 300,000 paid teaching positions by the fall of 2012. Many more have subsequently been phased out.

There is a rationale for the downsizing of state and local government, of course, and Republican austerians (who would be in favor regardless for ideological reasons) cite it frequently: aside from outlier Vermont, all states must adhere to constitutionally mandated balanced budgets. This stricture can easily be accommodated without draconian job purges, however; the obvious recourse is taxation, ideally taxes on the eternal free riders in big business and the high-income brackets.

But the same Republicans anxious to slash public spending in pious observance of state constitutional requirements are not about to allow the interests they represent to take an economic hit on behalf of the public good. Besides, in their belief system, government spending is inherently bad, and since the recession and its aftereffects have presented a perfect excuse to impose pinch-faced conservative asceticism, it would be a shame to waste the opportunity.

Curiously, tea-partying Republicans keen to reign in government services we “can’t afford” have no problem with making state budgets harder to balance by indulging in selective indirect spending. In the aftermath of the widespread GOP takeover of governorships and legislatures in 2010, 12 Republican-controlled states immediately set about reducing corporate income taxes — among them, John Kasich’s Ohio, Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, Rick Snyder’s Michigan, Chris Christie’s New Jersey, Rick Scott’s Florida, and Tom Corbett’s Pennsylvania. Apparently, some routes to budget imbalance are preferable to others.

While coddling their corporate soulmates, the GOP statehouse crowd went a step further, especially in the Upper Midwest, by attacking the support system of government employees; Indiana and Michigan Republicans undermined public-sector labor unions by enacting stringent state right-to-work laws in 2012 that applied equally to government and nongovernment workers. And Wisconsin’s GOP did its part to cripple public unions in that state by ending their collective-bargaining rights and forcing their members to ante up greater contributions to state pension and healthcare plans — effectively imposing an 8% across-the-board pay cut.

Why the emphasis on pummeling state public-sector unions? Putting aside organized labor’s tendency to support Democrats, weaker unions make government workers easier for conservative governors to fire; they also make it likelier that those same unions will be stymied in any attempts to negotiate pay increases. In a 2012 report on the travails of the public sector, The Christian Science Monitor observed that government workers in two right-to-work states, Arizona and Florida, had not had a pay raise in five and six years, respectively. First, starve the public sector; then, drown it in the bathtub.

All of this bashing of public employees is like catnip to the American right wing; it’s also counterproductive and downright stupid. Over the course of the recession and recovery, while federal, state, and municipal payrolls have been hollowed out, the US population has been rapidly multiplying; it’s increased by 12 million since late 2008, a figure that represents people who not only need government services, but also employment opportunities. As for the latter, the fabled job creators have failed miserably despite the corporate welfare they’ve received, and only government, at all levels, can take up the slack.

Furthermore, according to the National League of Cities, every $3 spent by government at the municipal level alone generates $1 in new private-sector activity. In a chronically flat economy, that’s no small thing. It’s time to end the mindless crusade against public employment.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2014


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