We Can Cut Costs Without Ruining Lives

Massive protests swept Wisconsin this month after state Congress introduced a bill that would wipe out public-sector unions to overcome a $137 billion shortfall.

As usual, legislators nationwide are quick to vilify unions for budget deficits. But the real villains are rising health care costs and dwindling pensions, which have taken a hit during the recession.

Granted, union leaders in states like California have already accepted cuts and furloughs to meet budget shortfalls. But public employees in Wisconsin already earn 4.8 percent less per hour than comparable employees in the private sector, according to the Economic Policy Institute. What’s more, Wisconsin unions are willing to accept the pension cost increase that would result in a 7-percent wage decrease. They just won’t stand for Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to weaken public unions’ bargaining power.

Walker’s bill would only let unions bargain regarding pay increases subject to inflation, and even those are subject to referendum. If the voters object to those efforts, public workers like teachers and nurses will suffer wage decreases even as inflation rises. And while some of us may harbor grudges against annoying high school teachers, none of them, I assure you, deserve this.

Similar bills in Ohio and Indiana have galvanized public protest against this unabashed attempt at stripping public employees of their rights: Students and workers packed the capitol building’s rotunda on Feb. 19 to protest passage of the bill .

The Tea Party, in its insatiable desire to fan the flames of controversy, has come out in favor of Walker’s cost-cutting proposal. But budget shortfalls should not be balanced on the backs of the most vulnerable members of the public sector.

Deficits should be addressed with uniform spending cuts and tax increases that are fair to as many as possible. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois raised his state’s income tax from 3 percent to 5 percent to alleviate budget woes. And even Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget — no object of praise itself, especially for its proposed $500 million cut to the UC system — includes minimal tax increases and spending cuts across the board.

Still, many are quick to blame public employees for paying less into their pensions than private sector workers. Unfortunately, those in the private industry used to enjoy similar benefits, but with the demise of private sector unions, these benefits have, for the most part, eroded.

Arguing that public employees should increasingly bear the deficits only creates a race to the bottom for workers in terms of salary and benefits. And with drastic, across-the-board cuts already all but inevitable in Wisconsin, there’s no reason that teachers and sanitation workers should be blamed for the state’s fiscal irresponsibility.

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