Executive Director Reports

The fortunate 14’s phony argument

Politicians, pundits and editorial writers continue to beat their war drums in an ongoing assault on public service workers.

Their argument is that public sector workers have it better than their private sector counterparts.

There is some truth to their contention. If you’re a public sector employee you’re more likely to have a defined benefit pension, more likely to have employer-provided health insurance, more likely to have protection against arbitrary dismissal.

Of course, not coincidentally, if you work for government, you’re five times more likely to be represented by a union than someone employed by a private enterprise.

By my standards, these are all positive aspects of public employment. Who would be against every worker having job and retirement security? Who thinks it’s a bad idea to have health insurance to protect us against bankruptcy brought on by a mountain of medical bills?

Well, in Illinois, one prominent group, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, thinks exactly that.

They’re the ones behind the barrage of television and radio ad attacking public employee pensions.

Their theme, “Illinois Is Broke,” was designed to convince state voters the Land of Lincoln was sinking in debt because of the overly generous pensions lavished on retired caregivers, correctional officers, teacher, and other public servants – all in order to divert attention from the corporate honchos’ own unwillingness to pay their fair share of taxes to meet the needs of Illinois citizens.

Crain’s Chicago Business recently published a list of Illinois’ highest paid executives employed by publicly traded corporations.

What we learned is that while Illinois may be broke, these folks aren’t.

Of the 50 highest paid executives, no less than 14 are members of the Civic Committee.

In 2012, these fortunate 14 each garnered between $7.6 million and $27.4 million in annual compensation.

The median American family income in 2012 was $52,100. The median for the fortunate 14 was $12 million. That’s individual income, not counting spouses.

In other words, it would take the average family 230 years to make the $12 million that represents the median income for the fortunate 14.

I can understand why these guys prefer the private sector to the public sector. Their astronomical compensation packages wouldn’t be tolerated in the public sector.

The president of the United States makes $400,000; the mayor of Chicago $200,000; and the governor of Illinois about $170,000.

Studies show that when you control for education requirements, length of service, and degree of dangers, public sector salaries lag those in the private sector, but you don’t hear the Civic Committee suggesting that public sector salaries should be raised.

Nor are these corporate CEOs advocating that, just as in the private sector, public employers be required to pay cash rather than comp time for overtime.

There are no arguments being advanced to do away with the residency requirements often imposed on public employees that can’t be imposed by law in the private sector.

If your neighbor works in the private sector, their employer isn’t required to list their salary on a website or provide it upon request. You’ll hear no parity argument from the fortunate 14 on this subject.

Nor do the corporate chieftains insist that the federal government require public employers to keep their pension plans adequately funded.

Any private sector employer that handled its pension plan in the manner our employers have treated ours would either have faced stiff fines or a jail sentence. Yet that’s not even on the Civic Committee’s radar.

Private sector employees had the legal right to bargain collectively for nearly 50 years before Illinois public sector workers won these same rights. You won’t find the Civic Committee, the Chicago Tribune, or anyone else now demanding public-private parity asking for redress of that inequity.

You won’t find it because there is none. The whole argument is phony.

These champions of the rich are not about equality between the public and private sectors. They’re about driving down retirement security and limiting accessibility to affordable health care.

We should be for parity between the private and public sectors.

Wages should be the same for similar jobs with similar requirements.

Illinois law restricts the funds public employers can use to thwart union organizing efforts. Those same restrictions should apply to private sector employers.

I’m all for requiring all employers to pay for overtime in cash and to provide affordable, quality health care.

Every worker should have a defined pension benefit that’s constitutionally protected, with stiff fines and jail time for any employer, public or private, that doesn’t provide adequate funding.

That’s what parity should be. That’s what fairness demands.

Unfortunately, that’s not what the Civic Committee and its allies at the Tribune mean when they talk about parity.

To them public/private parity is a one-way street, sloping steeply downward and leading to the further decimation of the rapidly eroding American middle class.