Food For Thought

Battle Lines Are Drawn Between Public & Private Employees

by Dr. John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John Bonfadini

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 microscope.

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 ludicrous.

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 legislature.

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.

Whats Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor. Mail will be forwarded to the author.




Home ] Up ] Caught in the Web ] Cover Story ] Down Home ] Editorial ] [ Food For Thought ] Happenings ] Reader Recipes ] Rural Living ] Say Cheese ]