Chris Edwards

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that there are more union members in the public sector than in the private sector in the United States. Thirty-nine percent of state and local government workers are members of unions, compared to just 7 percent of private sector workers. What problems are caused by the high level
of public sector unionism?

Steven Greenhut argues that public sector unions are “bankrupting the nation.” Greenhut’s book comes at a time of rising concern about the growing political power of public sector unions. With large budget deficits and huge funding gaps in pension plans, policymakers in many states are trying to constrain spending and improve government efficiency. But many governors, such as Chris Christie of New Jersey, are finding that unions stand in the way of needed fiscal reforms.

Greenhut is a California-based journalist and a former member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is thus familiar with both public sector unions and state budget crises.

California’s public sector workers have the highest average compensation of public sector workers in any state, and they also have one of the highest rates of unionization. It’s not a coincidence that the state is having severe budget problems and that it finds spending restraint very difficult to achieve.

Greenhut’s book focuses on California, and his background as a journalist results in a narrative-driven examination of the public sector union problem. He examines how public sector workers can
often retire at age 50 or 55 and draw very large pensions. In California, for example, there are more than 9,000 retired public sector workers with annual pensions of more than $100,000 a year. Oftentimes these high pensions result from government workers abusing the system; for example, the last year of an employee’s salary
may be artificially inflated to garner a larger annual pension, a technique known as “pension spiking.”

Journalists often do not ask tough questions of groups such as firefighters
and police because of the valuable contributions of those groups to local governments. But Greenhut analyzes these groups asspecial interests like any other, pushing for private gain and advantage. Yes, fire and police jobs can be dangerous, he says, but numerous private sector jobs are even more dangerous, and they don’t get
the sweetheart deals on pensions and other benefits that public sector workers do.

Chris Edwards

Chris Edwards is the director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute, and editor of Before joining Cato, Edwards was a senior economist on the congressional Joint Economic Committee, a manager with PricewaterhouseCoopers, and an economist with the Tax Foundation.

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