Steve Klingaman

Steve Klingaman
Minneapolis, Minnesota,
January 01
Steve Klingaman is a nonprofit development consultant and nonfiction writer specializing in personal finance and public policy. His music reviews can be found at

Editor’s Pick
DECEMBER 29, 2010 8:51AM

Assault on Public Employees Begins

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 Tim Pawlenty:  Official Portrait

Tim Pawlenty:  Taking on public workers is good politics.

Republican presidential hopeful Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty—a long shot by any measure—revealed in a Wall Street Journal OpEd piece that he has decided to build his pre-candidacy on bashing public employees.  As 2011 looks to be a horrendous year for state budgets, he probably figures that the timing is perfect for the next wave of anti-tax vigilantism—and he may well be right.  As unfortunate as his attacks are, it is even more unfortunate that he has built his case on discredited lies—Big Lies—the kind that come from the engine room of the Rovian Republican machine.

            When I read Pawlenty’s WSJ piece, “Government Unions vs. Taxpayers,” I immediately smelled a rat in the following statement:

“Since January 2008 the private sector has lost nearly 8 million jobs, while local, state and federal governments have added 590,000.”

I contacted Nick Adair of PolitiFact, the fact-checking arm of the St. Petersburg Times to request a work-up on the piece.  Adair informed me that I must be a mind reader, as they had a work in progress on the OpEd piece; their response was published online on December 16th.

            The finding?  Pants-on-Fire! Relying on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, PolitiFact concluded that local, state and federal jobs had decreased by 118,000.  Here’s PolitiFact:

“The comparison of job growth he made -- which showed the size of the federal workforce going in exactly the opposite direction as it did in reality -- is a key pillar supporting the premise of his column, that government work is "the only booming 'industry' left in our economy." Pawlenty's number is so compromised that we rate his statement Pants on Fire!”

PolitiFact covered the dubious history of the claim, showing that it indeed was a product of what I would consider the Republican disinformation daisy chain.  It was first trial ballooned by Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, on August 10. 2010.  LaTourette’s source is unknown, since his staff declined to respond to PolitiFact's inquiry.

            Unsatisfied with publishing one whopper in the Wall Street Journal, Pawlenty also offered the canard that:

“Federal employees receive an average of $123,049 annually in pay and benefits, twice the average of the private sector.”

PolitiFact dispatches this little gem of disinformation as “False” in a post published on November 11th, “Rand Paul says federal workers paid $120,000, private-sector workers only $60,000.” Given that, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts," it would have been nice if the Wall Street Journal would have checked Pawlenty's "facts."

Ah, the Good Old Days

            Pawlenty buttresses the lies with some hefty spin, opening with a paean to the meatpacking unions of his youth—“strong back jobs”—men’s jobs, authentic blue-collar jobs, precisely the kind he himself did not have as a unionized grocery clerk.  He offers that once upon a time unions protected families from “economic exploitation.”  As if magically, the drivers of such exploitation are nowhere evident in our streamlined, ineffectually regulated, market economy.

            In fact, according to Pawlenty, the tables have been turned, and now “pampered employees” exploit the taxpayer, bleeding the body politic dry with exorbitant wages, Cadillac benefits and undue political influence.  Pawlenty calls it—ominously—a “silent coup” funded by what he characterizes as outrageously large political contributions in the 2010 midterms (“$91 million,” which is actually fractions of pennies on the dollar to what big business spent). 

            Pawlenty goes on to state that in Minnesota he stood up to the bullies on the block, taking “decisive action” to stem the tide of exploitative, bullying, public clerical workers, many of whom happen to be women.

Never Mind the Facts…

            Excuse me, Tim, but you bring to mind a long, long series of “never minds” that I cannot refrain from pointing out right about now…

            Never mind that your case for an exploding public work force is simply not backed up by the facts.

            Never mind that any actual comparison of public versus private wages needs to be done on a “comparable job” basis.

            Never mind that you conveniently leave out CEO and Wall Street rainmaker wages from any consideration of what people earn.

            Never mind that the concentration of national wealth has skewed hard in favor of top 1 percent over recent decades, to the detriment of the middle class, many of whom are public employees.

            Never mind that the purpose of public sector unions is to prevent government from balancing the budget on the backs of low-level workers, as would be certain to occur in our era of bankrupt governments and 150 applicants for every public sector job.

            Never mind that the pension crisis you cite was brought on by the “fiscal malpractice by state and local officials” (your words) who did not manage pension funds with due diligence—not the fault of public workers.

            Never mind that the average salary of the public employee union AFSCME in Minnesota is $38,000, and the average pension is about $13,000 a year.

            Never mind that your tough stand in Minnesota consisted of accounting tricks and kicking the can down the road to your successor (conveniently, a Democrat).

            Never mind that your avowed strategy is to starve government—and thereby create a public union “crisis.”

            Never mind that there is no “pay premium” enjoyed by public sector workers, only a benefit premium.

            Never mind that you advocate a race to the bottom to eliminate pensions altogether in the public sector.

            Never mind that, unions or no, state and local employment is likely to plummet over the next two years.

            Never mind how incongruous it is that you tell government to “get the numbers right” on public pensions when you didn’t on your watch and the numbers you cite here are false.

            Never mind that your central contention that there is no “moral case for unions” rings hollow when you would just as soon outsource all their jobs to exploitive private companies that would pay blue collar workers a pittance, bilk the taxpayer and pocket the difference.

            So never mind all these factors and the whole thing adds up to you as a tough-guy exec who stands up to profligate legislators.  And you did in Minnesota.  You cut aid to cities, forcing library and fire department cuts—and city and county property taxes went through the roof. (And in Minnesota, businesses don't pay much in the way of property taxes.)  Thanks for that.  That certainly qualifies you to be president.  I suppose those library workers and firefighters were union members, so we showed them, didn’t we?

            I understand that long shot presidential hopefuls need to stake out turf, but here’s the thing:  The position you take targeting public workers proves the point that they need unions to protect them from exploitive government.  And never has this been as important as in the present moment, when middle class jobs are as scarce as TV airtime for long shot candidates.

            I don’t deny that public employee unions are ripe for reform.  Many bylaws and contracts no longer correspond to real-world metrics about what constitutes acceptable ROI for the expenditure of public dollars.  And overly generous pension benefits need to be scaled back (not eliminated)  and augmented by progressive 401k plans.  But disband the unions?  Never.  These unions protect many classes of workers who would otherwise be exploited by an electorate that wants all its government services for free.

            As long as our determination of the value of the public sector is shaped by magical thinking, entitlement and the political football you make it, I think our public employees would do well hang on tight to their unions while reforming those practices that need reshaping in an era of diminished expectations.


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It's interesting that one of your Google ads is for a website where you can sign a petition to ban political contributions by public unions. I guess Google ads doesn't really read for content!

Pawlenty is right that it is good politics to attack public unions. Most people are in favor of it. I predict that there will be major cuts in benefits and pay will be frozen.

(I found an article in our daily newspaper that published a complete list of salaries for public employees in 2008. Just out of curiosity, I looked at the salaries for employees in the Veterans Affairs department. The starting salary for a full-time Veterans' Benefits Rep was just over $16,000.)
The lemmings following this scalawag Pawlenty and those of his ilk are gathering in numbers and leading us all over the cliff. This pissant twerp couldn't have kept up for even one's day work next to my wife who has spent her life in the public sector, literally on her hands and knees at times helping the most learning, physical and mentally deficient among us. He says she doesn't deserve the small pension she will receive? Preposterous.

Rated for the necessary inclusion of Daniel Patrick Moynihan :
"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."
Once upon a time when he was an advocate for environmental safety and promoted policies that would thwart climate change, I thought he was a rare republican with good sense. Then he conveniently flip-flopped and started calling it a phony science. I knew then he was just another lying opportunist.

Wouldn't it be nice if we had some kind of law that regulates lying and misleading the public?
Bonnie, and how many of those Marin County workers are public union members? BTW, there are a variety of class-by-class comparisons that do not support the Union Tribune's findings. Usually, the public workers only exceed private sector wages when salary and benefits are aggregated. And the public sector outperformance is due to crappy benefits in the private sector, leading the way on your race to the bottom.
There ought to be a just devoted to these guys.
My sister lives in St Paul and has been complaining about Pawlenty for years now. She says he's just another gutless politician who changes his views to fit popular political dogma of the day. As a presidential candidate, I think he could be a potential political threat to Pres. Obama because he is non-threatening looking and seems middle-of-the-road in manners. We'll see in a year how this far-right bs of his plays out nationally.
Who the hell does he think does the work around here?

stop the advance of the 451s
Bonnie, overtime comes into play, for example, when giant snow storms hit places like New York City and city workers are forced to work nearly 24/7 over the holidays. Perhaps you'd like them to have military-style forced working hours at straight time pay? At the end of the year, when certain line items are overbudget, no one remembers how they demanded instant snow removal, only how much it all cost them.
Whenever a politician starts talking about reducing the size of government, the obvious response is, "Okay, you first."
"Whenever a politician starts talking about reducing the size of government, the obvious response is, "Okay, you first."-Dienne Anum

Well done. So true. The pathology of the "Big Lie" is out in full force here.
The sad thing is, with the way our media works today, your point by point analysis of his incorrect information will stand side by side (as equals) any opposite article that stems from a press release that uses contrived data to make opposite points. Too few people are actually paying attention to the hard-hitting analysis, but practically everyone is paying attention to the sound byte mentality of bad information, which is why he was voted in to do what he's doing right now.
I really detest the swiss cheese for brains sorts of attacks displayed by one commentor. Anomalies do not mean the entire system is bad. That's just basic to any argument.
Alfred E. Newman said it well in the 60's : "Many people are just like ink blotters. They can soak it up, but they get it all backwards."
Everyone's welcome to ante in, even if I'm not going to take the time to "refudiate" certain assertions. I do think we should be careful not to confuse abuses by elected or appointed officials with line level employees working under union contracts or civil service rules. And if some people are compensated under civil service rules at or above $100,000, that's fine by me.

Stella, you make a number of critical points, and thanks for the reference to the study. There are others, too, that tend to make this point, but the reference to education and training are unique.

And thanks, Duane, for your point that, "but practically everyone is paying attention to the sound byte mentality of bad information..."

Yeah, I know, I can policy wonk it all I want but the counter exposure never comes close to equalling the impact made by the original disinformation.

By the way, the WSJ article included a new term, seemingly straight from Rove Central that we will have to watch for in the future. It is the phrase "government unions." Thanks, again, Tim.
The movement is already seriously afoot to kill public employee unions. No doubt you've been reading there is proposed legislation which will allow states to declare bankruptcy which, if allowed, will nullify all existing union contracts and PERS guarantees.

Seems a little drastic, in view of the impact it would have on the general economy. But there you are. The GOP has never let a thing like reality interfere with their harebrained notions of fiscal responsibility.

Good piece. You're spot on.
Public unions are about to experience what the rest of the unions experienced in seventies and eighties. The line that government workers actually lost one hundred fifty thousand jobs compares poorly to the nine million jobs in the private sector.

It's time to take on government unions with their impossible to fund pension plans and their tolerance of sloth.

I'm a Democrat and a strong union man with the exception of government unions. Look what they did to New York City in the late seventies and eighties and what they are doing to California now.
I'm not sure how one can be a "strong union man", and yet call for the abolition of certain unions. That needs some explanation, I think.

As for government employee salaries, why is it that everyone is supposed to agree that no government employee should ever make $100,000 or more? I would think that it would depend on the position, the responsibilities, and the amount of time the person has been doing the job.

A former co-worker of mine once worked for the state employees' union here in Tennessee. Many state workers had salaries so low they qualified for food stamps.
Counterspin and Fair have been doing a good job of bird dogging these claims. They recently reported on a study showing that for comparable work, federal employees earn less than private sector workers. Of course, Republicans were claiming just the opposite.
I am a government worker. I have a college education beyond a BA and have worked for the Gov for 26 years. Bonnie, you really need to get out and see what some of us endure. I am responsible for the safety of food products for about a half million people. A couple of years ago it was several million people at the same pay. By the way, a checker at the supermarket makes just a little less than I.

As to the overtime argument, I have HAD to work overtime whether I wanted to or not for years AND get up a ungodly hours to perform my tasks. As a result of my being at work so much and having to move to move up, my family disentegrated and I lost touch with many friends. Now I am looking at retirement and with 26 years of paying into the federal retirement system and 40 years of paying into Social Security, I am going to be penalized about 20% of my federal retirement for qualifying for Social Security whether I sign up for it or not and Social Security will penalize me 36% of my stipend from them because I have a government pension and was in such low paying jobs for the first 20 some odd years of working. I will be lucky to end up with $25,000 a year to retire on!
Tell me more about the bloated public employees sucking the life from this country! Perhaps we should look at the very wealthy and the coporations to see how they are doing?
For more on this discussion, including some reportage that contradicts the points made by Bonnie, see the 1/2/11 New York Times article, "Public Workers Facing Outrage in Budget Crisis." One little gem: governors who deliberately exacerbate the public pension crisis by refusing to make scheduled payments into the system. One governor who opted for this approach was New Jersey's Governor Christie (R). He refused to pay a scheduled $3.1 billion.
Execute the rich and take their money.
Of course, I disagree about giving an inch. Where's the same advice you gave Obama on starting way out in left field when negotiating so you end up with something decent in an age of "diminished expectations"? This is when the real debate begins. Washington's theatrics was just the preliminaries. I don't think unions should give an inch, not a bloody inch, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a traitor to the working class. That's where I would start.

You're not very good at this negotiating thing, are you . . .? ;)