Ash defends public-sector benefits

Michael Ash

In a letter to the editor, Michael Ash, UMass Amherst economics professor, defends public-sector employment benefits, including pensions.  The real problem, according to Ash, is “private employers reducing their commitment to their workers while increasing executive salaries and stockholder dividends.”  (The Nation, August 30/September 6)

The Nation
Letters to the Editor

Public Workers—the Gold Standard
Amherst, Mass.

I thank Amy Traub for “War on Public Workers” [July 5]. Isn’t it remarkable that privatization, deregulation and casino capitalism destroy our economy… and public employees are suddenly to blame?

This attack on public employees, their unions and their benefits feels like the final swish down the toilet bowl for the New Deal. Some observations:

(1) Traub notes with disappointment that New York’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo has jumped on the bash-public-employees bandwagon; but he’s not the only Democrat to do so. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has honed the fine art of being seen as a progressive while leading the charge against public workers—reopening contracts and demanding concessions from all state employees, from social workers to librarians to college professors—but not asking for any “shared sacrifice” from the wealthy, and then bragging about it.

(2) Far from being a parasitic drain, public-sector workers provide critical services for everyone—education, public safety, environmental protection—that private enterprise cannot or will not supply.

(3) The public sector sets the standard for quality of employment, and that benchmark serves as a constant reminder of the failure of private corporations to provide adequate compensation and economic security for their workers.

Nowhere is the public benchmark clearer than in the case of pensions, and nowhere has the war been more ferocious. Resentment of public-sector pensions masks the important issue of adequate pensions for all working Americans. There is a pension crisis, but it’s not the overgenerosity of public-sector pensions. The crisis is that the private pension system is collapsing. Companies that still offer traditional defined-benefit pensions—intended to provide a predictable retirement income for life—have underfunded their accounts. Most companies have ceased to offer pensions altogether or provide meager subsidies to roll the dice in the 401(k) casino. The consequences will be ugly. Many “retirees” will never retire. Or they will have to move in with their children, creating deep stresses, which had been eased by the solid pensions of the Greatest Generation.

Reducing public-sector pensions won’t solve that problem. Public- and private-sector workers need to look at each other, recognize friends and demand leveling up, not down. The real problem is not public workers’ pensions but private employers reducing their commitment to their workers while increasing executive salaries and stockholder dividends.

University of Massachusetts

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