Target: public employees

Last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger—fresh from his “victory” in the budget stalemate, even though a number of his line-item vetoes face lawsuits—announced his next target: the state employees’ retirement plan.

Yes, the governor wants to institute a two-tiered retirement system that would mean lower benefits for newly hired public employees (this includes teachers, firefighters, police officers and state workers), while current employees keep the benefits they now have.

Though the plan would only affect new hires, current workers should recognize this for what it is: an unfair stab at public employees and a classic attempt at union busting. Two-tiered benefit plans are a well-known tool for weakening unions, since hard times create an environment where management can persuade unions to accept changes. Then, when times are good again, new employees have no reason to support a union that hasn’t done anything for them.

Schwarzenegger has been on a rampage against unions since he was first elected, but his animosity towards labor seems lately to have generalized to include the public workers themselves. How else to explain his cavalier attitude toward the hardships the budget crisis has placed on them? Many segments of the state workforce are now up to three furlough days per month (about 14 percent of their pay for most workers). Yet their share of payments for health insurance hasn’t declined, nor have their tax rates.

Now Schwarzenegger wants to take further aim at this group. With 10 percent of the Sacramento region’s workforce made up of state employees, we face sweeping consequences if the governor’s plan moves through.

We are well aware that the state’s pension funds are struggling, with large investment losses over the past year. And we’re also aware that the governor’s call for a two-tiered system comes in the context of a California in dire financial straits, with its leaders having just made a $26 billion budget deal that cuts health care for children and home care for the elderly disabled.

Still, the question must be asked: Why is Schwarzenegger so eager to cut pensions of (mostly) middle-income workers while he’s not willing to take other steps that would save the state money or open up new sources of revenue—like closing tax loopholes, exacting an oil-extraction fee or raising the state income tax for top earners?

A great many people seem to take delight in bashing state workers, but how much of that is simple resentment at their perceived good deal? The problem isn’t that public employees have a good deal, but that the rest of us don’t.

If Schwarzenegger succeeds in breaking the state employees’ unions and bringing public workers down to the level of fast-food and big-box retail employees, it’s a fair bet that no one will ever have to worry about losing a secure retirement again.

That’s because no one will have been promised one to begin with.