Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Get Off The Bandwagon, Willie
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A LEGISLATURE SHOWS CONGRESS HOW
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As former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown suggested in his Sunday S.F. Chronicle column on Jan. 3, "It's time for politicians to begin an honest dialogue" about civil service. For starters, Willie should get his facts straight and get off the anti-public employee bandwagon that so many politicians are riding these days.

Brown said, for instance, that "the deal used to be that civil servants were paid less than private sector workers in exchange for an understanding that they had job security for life."

Not so, Willie. Public employees were paid less because, if they were qualified for their jobs - as shown by civil service tests and other means - they were more likely to be able to continue working for the government. Plus, they were willing to accept long-term benefits - primarily health care and pensions - in lieu of higher pay.

So, though it's true enough that government workers might have "job security for life," they only have it as long as they continue to perform in accord with civil service standards and are willing to do it for less pay than they might make in private employment. And if they are willing to risk being laid off because of poor budget decisions by politicians and insufficient tax support from the general public.

Yet Willie says, "We politicians, pushed by our friends in labor, gradually expanded pay and benefits to private-sector levels while keeping the job protections and layering on incredibly generous retirement packages."

Some friend of labor Willie is. The fact is that most government workers are still paid considerably less than many of their counterparts in private employment. And does he really oppose extension of "job protections" to city employees? I mean such basic protections as the right not to be fired or otherwise disciplined arbitrarily, which is guaranteed under the city employees" union contracts.

In part because of their willingness to work for less pay, public employees often do have better pensions and, in San Francisco, better health care while working and in retirement. You'd think a friend of labor would recognize that, and in fact be proud that his city's government provides such vital benefits to those who do its work.

Give Willie this, though: There are indeed a few outrageously high pensions paid city employees. But those retirees are at the management level.

There are currently some 18,000 retired city employees drawing pensions, aside from police and fire fighters. Their "incredibly generous retirement packages" average, before taxes, $23,000 a year, or about $1,900 a month. Try living on that in San Francisco. In addition, many, if not most, retirees have one or more dependents, and half are over 70 and receive pensions even lower than the average.

Willie must know, too, that much of the money retirees get comes from the 7 percent or more of their incomes that they paid into pension funds while they were working.

"Get honest,"said Willie, "about the fact that 80 percent of the state, county and city budget deficits are due to employee costs."

That's hardly surprising. The main function of local and state governments is to provide services and providing them is what most government employees do. Obviously, budget deficits would reflect that.

City employees and working people generally need all the friends they can get in these perilous economic times. But Willie Brown, once one of their most important allies, is not likely to be one of those friends in need.

Copyright 2010 Dick Meister