Battle Lines Are Drawn Between Public & Private Employees
by Dr. John E.
Bonfadini, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus, George Mason University
Public-sector employees are subjected to greater scrutiny
when the economy takes a dive. Segments of the public workforce ó law
enforcement, firefighters, teachers, highway workers and general government
employees ó find their salaries, benefits, and positions under the
Politicians reward public workers with increased salaries
and benefits during economic boom times. And everyone praised firefighters
and law enforcement after 9-11. Now we are seeking to reduce their benefits.
Politicians contend that taxpayers cannot support the tax base required by
current wage and benefits agreements. Changes must occur if the financial
health of local, state and national government is to be maintained.
Iíve worked in both the public and private sectors of the
economy, although my primary employment has been in the public sector as an
educator. Over the years Iíve represented both the management and
union/associations points of view in binding and non-binding arbitration.
Most wages and benefits are based on subjective measurements. We try to
quantify things that arenít quantifiable. In times of abundance emotions
fade, but if the economy slips emotions rise to the surface again.
In the 1960s I was president of a teacherís association in
Pennsylvania. The state had ordered many of the smaller school districts to
merge and form larger, more efficient districts. Three school divisions
merged to form the one in which I taught. Two of the merging divisions had a
good tax base and one divisionís tax base led to a school system with many
needs. The two wealthier school divisions decided to set taxes at the poor
divisionís rate. Excess monies were returned to the taxpayers in the
wealthier divisions. They then denied the teachers raises and even wanted to
cut salaries. This wasnít the intent of the state merger legislation.
As president of the teacherís association, I experienced
some of the anxiety of educators in Wisconsin and Ohio today. Teachers
couldnít strike, but were afforded non-binding arbitration. The school
division chose not to accept the arbitratorís recommendations, so many
younger teachers like me left for greener pastures. Often, private-sector
employees face similar situations when companies merge. If youíre a good
employee you feel betrayed.
Teachers, firefighters, and law-enforcement officers work
in professions that need public respect to function. The current dialogue
does little to foster such respect. Assigning blame is not the answer. Iíve
seen public negotiators give away control of the system just so they didnít
have to give raises. Itís a difficult balance between obtaining employee
input and maintaining company control. Should teachers have some say in
things like class size? To me the answer is obviously yes.
The governor of Indiana maintains that class size is not a
factor in the quality of education. Iíve faced this assertion as an
education administrator. I used the following analogy to emphasize my point
when a principal would say, ďJohn, itís only one more student.Ē Each time
you add a child to a teacherís class itís like stretching a rubber band.
Some added child is going to cause the band to break. Different teachers are
like different-sized rubber bands, but they all have breaking points. To say
class size doesnít have any effect on the educational experience is
In past years many workers who entered the public
workplace knew their salaries would be less than those of workers in the
private sector. But the public sector usually offered more stable employment
and benefits. Public employees seldom enjoyed the large salary base and
bonuses possible in the private sector. Those who continue to assert that
merit pay is the answer just donít understand being paid with taxpayersí
money. We had a merit system at George Mason and in my opinion it was a
joke. A small percentage of the state funds were allocated into a merit
pool. The amount was usually so small that it wasnít worth the effort to
assemble a merit portfolio. If youíre a teacher, firefighter or police
officer, your maximum effort is required regardless of the remuneration. If
the educational system achieved the goal of graduating all students with
accepted educational levels, will taxpayers be willing to pay more taxes for
merit raises? Iíll tell you the answer. NO.
Public retirement benefits are receiving increased
scrutiny. Many states have offered defined benefit programs where after a
number of years an employee can retire at a set yearly income. Todayís
debate involves defined benefit programs versus defined compensation (401k).
Also under consideration is to what degree employees should contribute to
their retirement and health care.
I can remember when I paid part of my retirement benefits.
During my tenure at George Mason the state offered to pay employee
retirement benefits rather than give raises. There was some benefit to the
state for offering this option. Would I be angry if they now came back and
asked me to return the benefit? The answer is yes, but I also realize that
things are not forever.
States need to review plans to determine age and
retirement factors appropriate for future retirees. People are living much
longer and 55 may not a realistic retirement age that can be totally
supported, even if youíre a firefighter or a member of law enforcement. I
believe this can best be accomplished by a commission outside the
My son, whoís a teacher, related the following
conversation between a politician and a co-worker. She informed the elected
official that she hadnít had a raise in three years. His response was that
she was lucky to have a job. When she raised the topic of larger classes and
the difficulty of helping all students succeed, his response was that Jesus
doesnít save everybody. I canít imagine telling that to a parent whose child
isnít succeeding, especially the parent of a student with special needs.
We should examine our actions as we move though these
challenging times. We may be judged more by the way we obtain an acceptable
outcome than the outcome itself.