Public Sector Union Reform Requires Mutual Empathy

Edward Ring

Director, Water and Energy Policy

Edward Ring
June 16, 2015

Public Sector Union Reform Requires Mutual Empathy

Sorry but you would all be crying like a little b**** if the cops and firefighters that earn every penny they get in retirement were not there when your perfect make believe world falls apart so shut the f*** up. Until you do the job you have no idea what you are talking about.

–  Comment on post, June 3, 2015

This comment, made by a California police supervisor onto the Facebook page of our organization, graphically encapsulates what is entirely understandable resentment on the part of public servants to a new reality – their pay and benefits are being exposed to public debate. It would be easy to dismiss this comment as inappropriate, or to merely characterize it as an example of public sector arrogance. But that would be a huge mistake.

Compared to the lives most of us are privileged to lead, public safety employees endure unrelenting stress. While it is important to be honest about rates of police and firefighter mortality and job related disabilities, the fact that many other jobs carry greater risk of death or injury does not change the fact that public safety employees endure unique stress. It is unique not only because it can occur at any time, but because it is the very nature of their work. They face hostility and mayhem as part of their job description, and because they do that, we are enabled to feel secure in our so-called “make believe” lives.

There is a compensation premium we owe public safety employees that appropriately should exceed the premium we’ve paid in the past to those who risk their lives to protect us. Because we now live in a society where overall safety and security has never been greater. Crime rates remain at historic lows in the United States. Based on empirical data, the quality of services we receive from public safety agencies has never been higher. Better service merits higher pay.

Public safety employees deserve a premium over historical rates of pay for another reason. Crime has morphed into areas unimaginable even a generation ago – cybercrime, global terrorism, financial crimes, gangs, international criminal networks, foreign espionage, asymmetric threats – the list is big and gets bigger every year. At the same time, our expectations regarding human rights and police conduct have never been higher. Police officers today need to possess skills well beyond what sufficed in the past. This also means they should be paid more.

Which brings us to the difficult conversation that we still have to have regarding compensation. The person who made this comment was reacting to our recent post that exposed a retired firefighter – and current official for a firefighter union – who was attacking pension reformers, while collecting a pension that during 2013 (not including benefits) was $183,690. It is neither fair nor affordable to pay anyone a government pension that big. The average full-career pension and benefits for recently retired public safety employees in California is over $100,000 per year, and the average retirement age is under 60. Using conservative assumptions, a starting pension of $100,000 per year, awarded that early, is worth at least $2.5 million. Factoring in cost-of-living adjustments, it’s worth even more. This is an impossible level of retirement benefit to sustain. It prevents us from hiring more public safety employees, and it drains funds from other worthwhile government programs including not only general services, but crucial infrastructure development.

Public safety employees deserve all the respect we can give them for the jobs they do. They deserve our appreciation and our thanks. But that courtesy should not extend to routinely conceding the debate over how much they should be paid, or, for that matter, whether or not they should have so much political influence, or, to get down to the crux of it, whether or not they should be allowed to even form unions and bind local governments with collective bargaining agreements. There is NO connection between our debate over public employee compensation or related public policies, and how much we respect public employees.

Finally, the respect that citizens ought to feel towards public safety employees can be taken too far. We should respect all workers, including those whose jobs are indeed more dangerous than police work or firefighting, and including those whose jobs are tedious, laborious, dirty, and underpaying. All work is valuable. All workers deserve dignity and respect. And while the deaths of police and firefighters are always tragic, all deaths are tragic. About 2.5 million Americans die each year, and about 1.0 million of those deaths are untimely – usually from fatal accidents or terminal disease that strikes before someone is elderly. Our collective empathy must extend well beyond what we rightly owe public safety employees, or we cannot keep their sacrifices in perspective.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

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