Should Police and Firefighters be Exempted from Union Reforms?

Edward Ring

Director, Water and Energy Policy

Edward Ring
March 12, 2013

Should Police and Firefighters be Exempted from Union Reforms?

Advocates of public sector union reform point to fundamental differences between unions in the competitive private sector vs. those unions that organize government workers. Briefly stated, private sector unions must moderate their demands or the companies they bargain with will go out of business; private sector unions exercise little influence over who is going to run the companies and sit opposite them at the negotiating table; members of private sector unions do not operate the machinery of government, or have the power to enrich themselves by raising taxes on the rest of us.

For these reasons, it is possible to be critical of private sector unions, but to be far more concerned about public sector unions. If public sector unions have acquired too much power, and they have, the consequences impact everyone. In California, the average public sector worker makes twice as much in total compensation as the average private sector worker. Because direct personnel costs generally consume over 70% of local government and public education budgets, and over 60% of the much smaller state budget (once pass-through funds are eliminated from the denominator), it is obvious that unsustainable pay and benefits are a primary reason for California’s budget deficits. But thanks to a powerful alliance between public sector unions and financial institutions – pension funds and bond issuers – instead of lowering pay and benefits, we increase taxes, increase borrowing, and cut government services.

If you dig deeper into municipal budgets, however, it doesn’t take long to see where most of the money is being spent. Bypassing the misleading data on the State Controller’s pay tracker website, where part-time employees are included in the denominator when calculating averages, and many categories of employer pay and benefits are missing, the California Public Policy Center evaluated the payroll of three cities in California, Anaheim, Costa Mesa, and San Jose. Using accurate and comprehensive data provided by the payroll departments from each of those cities, here is a summary of their findings:

Average Annual Total Compensation – Three Select California Cities:

Anaheim: Police = $171K, Fire = $194K, Other = $123K

Costa Mesa: Police = $182K, Fire = $208K, Other = $104K

San Jose: Police = $179K, Fire = $203K, Other = $120K

Notwithstanding the fact that most of us would be thrilled to work for any one of these cities in the “other” job classification, the disparity is not subtle. Police and firefighters earn annual total compensation that averages well over $150,000 per year, and they earn nearly twice what their colleagues earn in local governments. In case anyone might consider these three cities to be outliers, using state and local census bureau data from 2009 for base pay, combined with overhead percentages for employer paid benefits derived from the three cities analyzed in detail, here are averages for California (not taking into account how much employer paid pension contributions are probably going to have to increase):

Average Annual Total Compensation – State and Local Government Employees in California:

Police = $152K, Fire = $183K, Other = $98K

While public sector union spokespersons regularly remind voters how many concessions their members have already made in attempts to help balance budgets, the fact is the numbers reported here have not changed much. And the most sensitive, difficult topic to address is the compensation and benefits for public safety employees, who even Governor Brown acknowledged during his campaign against Meg Whitman, create challenges for local budgets that are disproportionate to their numbers.

In other states where public sector union reforms are actually happening, the prevailing pattern is to exempt public safety employees from the legislation. In March of 2011 the state of Wisconsin enacted reforms that limited the ability of public employees to collectively bargain for benefits, but excluded police and firefighters. In December of 2012 the state of Michigan enacted a right-to-work law, but excluded police and firefighters. The state of Missouri is currently debating a paycheck protection law, one that affects all public employees except for police and firefighters.

What’s going on?

It is undeniable that public safety employees should receive a premium for the risks they take. And this premium should be bigger than it was historically because we have higher expectations and get better results from our public safety personnel than ever before, and also because we place a higher value on human life than ever before. Those who risk their lives today to protect the public should receive a generous premium for their work. The real question is how much is too much? And is it really possible that reformers of public sector unions are blind to the fact that unions of police officers and firefighters are wielding just as much inappropriate political power as any of the other public sector unions who they have successfully targeted?

A more likely explanation is that conservative reformers of public sector unions know that members of public safety are generally more conservative than, say, public school teachers, social workers, or environmental protection bureaucrats. Fair enough. But this is a dangerously short-sighted strategy. Members of public safety are trusted with authority that goes well beyond that entrusted to any other domestic civil servants. They are sworn officers, in many respects more akin to members of the military than to their fellow bureaucrats. Shall the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines unionize? Shall a shadow government of union bosses intercede in national military strategy and tactics, enforce work rules, negotiate compensation? Where’s the difference?

The powers that public safety unions wield go beyond that of other public employee unions because of the nature of their work, and the consequences of this power go beyond just making it hard to negotiate reductions to their pay and benefits. Police in the United States should be politically neutral. They should enforce the laws, not make them. They can work through strictly voluntary associations to advocate their political agenda and improve their profession.

When considering whether or not unions representing public safety employees should be subject to the same reforms as unions representing other government workers, one should return to a primary reason unions in the public sector are different: They operate the machinery of government. In the case of police, this includes unprecedented new opportunities to employ technology – surveillance, micro-drones, remote sensors – to enforce unprecedented new laws – environmental, national security, tax enforcement, code enforcement. All of the reasons we may fear the power of public sector unions, who have turned our public servants into a privileged elite, are magnified in the case of public safety. It isn’t just about the money.

*   *   * is edited by Ed Ring, who can be reached at

Want more? Get stories like this delivered straight to your inbox.

Thank you, we'll keep you informed!