When public finances are stressed it seems the finger always points to “greedy” public unions, that they must cause the problem. I think the explanation lies elsewhere.

[Editor’s Note: This letter first appeared in the Southampton Press, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.]

In “Let the Pendulum Swing” [February 24], The Press editorializes: “To protect the future of collective bargaining locally, public employees will have to give more, a lot more … especially when it comes to contributing toward the costs of benefits and pensions.”

Glad to see that The Press recognizes the value of collective bargaining.

When public finances are stressed it seems the finger always points to “greedy” public unions, that they must cause the problem.

Let’s look at Texas. Texas, a pro-business, anti-union state might have a deficit as large as $27 billion.

So, I think the explanation lies elsewhere.

Undeniably, public sector budgets are strained. But can the argument be made that public sector unions are the cause of budget problems? I think not. Public sector unions are the place to look when tax revenue dries up or the place to look when regressive property taxes are used as the main funding source for our public goods.

States from California to New York join Texas in our public finance mess because we are in the worst recession since the 1930s. Fewer jobs mean less tax revenue and more claims on the public purse to combat the effects of this recession. As MIT professor Simon Johnson has written: The most immediate problem is that our largest banks and closely related parts of the financial system blew themselves up in 2007-08. The ensuing recession and associated loss of tax revenue will end up pushing up our government debt, as a percent of GDP, by around 40 percent.

What the public workers are doing in Wisconsin is saying that we will work with you to reduce costs. Public sector workers across this country and in New York State have bargained hard but have been willing to offer givebacks. Take a look at New York State’s pension benefits in place in the 1970s compared to pension benefits now.

I value the work that the public sector workers provide to us. Our public goods, like education, police and fire protection, as well as recreation and road work and other activities that keep life manageable are critical to our well being. How do we value that work? How do we put a price on those who would rush into burning towers on 9/11? How do we value those who will be educating this generation to help us get to the next generation, especially in a more competitive world? Public workers should be well compensated in my view. But we need to find better funding sources.

Regressive property taxes are not the answer.

As David D’Agostino wrote in The Press:

In Wisconsin, as in New York, public workers, teachers included, have made many concessions, but it is unfair to place all of the burden on these middle-class Americans. There is no “shared sacrifice” in America today. The rich get tax breaks, while the middle class get pink slips, and no one seems concerned with the poor. Those we should value most are being treated the worst. As Lee Iacocca once said, “In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something else.”

Companies like Goldman Sachs rationalize multimillion-dollar salaries and bonuses as necessary. They say that such astronomical payouts are the only way of retaining quality employees who would otherwise be poached by their competitors, and the Republican Party agrees. But only for the rich.

When it comes to education, they seem to believe that lowering salaries and hijacking benefits for working-class Americans is the key to improving our nation’s schools and lifting us out of the recession. One of the largest single contributors to the deficit is the Bush tax cuts—not health benefits for public workers.

[…]

Don’t allow yourself to be distracted. Teachers are not rich, it is not “impossible” to fire a bad teacher, and collective bargaining does not contribute to budget deficits. America’s future is in the hands of our educators, whom we should reward and value, not punish and demean. Instead of vilifying educators, try thanking one.

Indeed.

Signed, LI Mike