Time for a political agenda for all middle class workers

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Eye from Albany
September 2005

Time for a political agenda for all middle class workers
by Paul M. Bray

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 costume jewelry”.

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.