Eye from Albany
Eye from Albany by Paul M. Bray
Time for a political agenda for all middle class workers
The times certainly are changing for the working middle class.
Average wages from private sector workers are stuck in neutral. Growth in
income for most workers barely keeps up with inflation. This is without factoring
in the recent ballooning cost of gasoline and heating fuels.
Private sector employers are reducing labor costs by downsizing, layoffs,
outsourcing, squeezing wages and decreasing the availability of worker health and
pension benefits. The troubled legacy airlines like United Airlines and
manufacturing giants like Delphi have used or are about to use bankruptcy to get a
"competitive cost structure". They threaten to terminate employee pension
plans if the unions don't accept drastically lower wages like from about $27 an
hour to as little as $10 an hour.
Driving this are huge pressures for corporate productivity that place the
burden on low and middle income workers or what is called "the new realities
brought on by the forces of globalization". Upstate New York knows this very well.
Joseph Nocera, writing in the New York Times, observed that Americans are
giving efforts like Dephi's to negotiate wages downward a "resigned shrug". He
believes they seem "to be accepting these wrenching labor 'retrenchments' as the
cost of globalization, even as they are also making it possible for us to
reap the benefit of lower prices in everything from airline seats to Chinese-made
In comparison to the plight of manufacturing and many other private sector
workers, public employees must be fat and happy. Not so.
They have their defined contribution pension plans, their health insurance
and relatively secure jobs. While they have never reached the higher salaries
traditionally found in the private sector, they are, in light of today's private
sector wages and benefits, doing well. The Citizens Budget Commission points
out the "The hourly earnings of state and local government employees exceed
those of the private-sector in the greater New York City region by an average of
15%-$28,26 to $24.62.
In fact, public employees aren't happy. A study by the Federal Office of
Personnel Management in 2004 found that only 20% of the workers at the Department
of Homeland Security believed "My work give me a sense of personal
accomplishment". The happiest employees were at NASA with a relatively modest rating of
72.8%. At private sector corporations, a 75% positive response to that question
would set off alarms and an effort to improve morale.
Anecdotally, I can tell you in state agencies, the level of morale is poor.
In the Pataki years the state workforce has dropped by 10% from 243,625 to
219,208, but the workload hasn't fallen. It is noticeable when you consider since
1995, the state budget has risen from $63 billion to $106 billion. A state
agency manager recently wrote to me, "I am trying to figure out how to carry out
two new programs in my unit without a new position".
Public employees are feeling the pinch and it may get a lot worst. Bush and
Pataki-like administrations don't mind public spending, they just don't like it
to go to civil service employees.
Among the attacks on public employment is outsourcing of public work
(independent contractors or outsiders doing public work for much more money). Times
Union columnist Fred LeBrun calls it "blatant union busting".
While all of this is going on, public employment is under unrelenting attack
from anti-union conservatives advocating for privatization of public services,
outsourcing of public work and cutting pension benefits. They've gotten their
nose under the tent with Charter Schools that have taxpayers paying for
elementary and secondary schools staffed with nonunion teachers.
As someone who believes public employees serve us well in many ways, I am
troubled with what is happening in the public sector and am beginning to fear it
can only get worst as the middle class continues to be squeezed when it comes
to jobs, wages and benefits. It may not be long before private sector workers
take out their frustration on the public sector work force.
Instead of the private and public sector workers joining together to fight
the rush to the bottom for all when it comes to what globalization is doing to
jobs, wages and benefits, beleaguered public employees may become the target.
Protectionism may also be in the wings.
What is sadly missing from the political discourse is a progressive agenda
protective of the needs of middle class workers in both the private and public
sector. The time has come for progressive interests to take a hard look to the
future when it comes to the working middle class in both the private and
public and frame an equitable agenda that meets the needs of all workers.
While many of the fixes are national in scope like fixing the health care
system, it will be states like New York that will have to chart the course that
may ultimately be followed by Congress. Let us hope that the candidates for
Governor in 2006 can raise to the level of progressively addressing challenges
like globalization that face the working middle class in New York State.
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