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Amy Traub

New York City’s War on Public Workers

“The Wall Street bankers who caused the crisis got bailed out by the feds – but teachers, detectives, and token booth clerks are being told to cut back.” The quote, reported by columnist Adam Lisberg in this Sunday’s Daily News, aptly sums up the way that New York’s public sector workers have become convenient scapegoats for the budget problems caused by the nation’s Wall-Street induced economic collapse.

Consider the growing furor over the cost of the city’s public pensions, heavy with suggestions that most city workers are retiring to live high on the hog at public expense. Despite some heavily publicized individual abuses by city and state employees, most public retirees don’t live lavishly. As Lisberg points out:

The city's Independent Budget Office says the big reason pension costs will rise in future years is that pension funds took a big hit in the recession and need more cash to make up what they lost… Those huge pensions, by the way? The average retiree from the main city pension fund … received $33,194 in 2008, the last year for which figures are available.

Yet, Lisberg adds, it’s also the case that many working people in New York have no pension at all, and would dearly love the retirement security New York’s teachers and bus drivers enjoy. He’s right, and, as the Drum Major Institute's Dan Morris notes in the article, the American middle class will only expand when more private sector workers can win the same solid health and retirement benefits, and enjoy the same collective bargaining rights, as their public counterparts. Yet attacking city workers only drives us farther from that goal. As I pointed out in the Nation earlier this month:

There will be less pressure to address the decades-long erosion of pay and benefits for most working people in the private sector if public anger can be focused on the bus mechanic who still has health coverage… At its heart, the scapegoating of public employees is an insidious way to divide public and private sector workers who share many of the same interests.

The assault on public workers occurring in New York City and across the nation is anti-worker and anti-government at its core. Working people who want decent health care and retirement security should fight for those benefits in their own workplace, not fall for the attack against the public employees who have managed to negotiate and hold onto them.

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Posted at 1:26 PM, Jul 19, 2010 in Labor | pensions | public services
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