Often, when politicians or corporate lobbyists attack public employees, they claim they’re acting to help hard-working taxpayers in the nonunion private sector who are suffering under the burden of supposedly fat and lazy government workers and their Cadillac pensions. Earlier this year, for instance, when Iowa governor Terry Branstad signed a bill eliminating collective bargaining rights for that state’s public employees, he declared the new law would restore “fairness for Iowa taxpayers.” Branstad’s words echo those of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker who in 2011 declared that public employees had to be stripped of their union rights, claiming “we can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and the taxpayers who pay the bill are the have-nots.”
But what really happens when public employees are attacked, and who benefits? Are corporate-backed lawmakers really acting to help families struggling to get by in the nonunion private sector?
Unfortunately, the actual legislative track record suggests that attacks on public employees have served not to help the downtrodden, but to further enrich those already well-off.
Attacks on public-sector workers hurt working people and benefit the wealthy: Share of tax cuts received following attacks on Wisconsin public workers, by income group, 2013–2014
|Bottom 60% of households||27%|
Source: Tamarine Cornelius and Jon Peacock, Breaking with Tradition: How Wisconsin Lawmakers Have Shortchanged a Legacy of Investment in the State’s Future, Wisconsin Budget Project, August 6, 2014.
In Wisconsin, lawmakers enacted $2 billion worth of tax cuts in 2011-14, paid for by the layoffs and wage and benefit cuts of public employees. An analysis of these cuts shows that the poorest 20 percent of households received a benefit of just $48 per year, and the average benefit for the entire bottom 60 percent of families was $118. But the richest 20 percent of households received an average of $681 per year, and the top 1 percent received over $2,500 per year. In total, fully half of the tax cuts went to the richest 20 percent of the state’s population, with another quarter going to the next 20 percent. The bottom 60 percent of the state’s population were provided just over one-quarter of the funds to split among themselves. Cutting public employee benefits to fund tax cuts was not, therefore, a transfer from the “haves” to the “have-nots,” but just the opposite – $2 billion taken from working and middle-class families and given predominantly to the privileged and elite.
Gordon is the author of The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America, One State at a Time.