The Truth About Civil Servants

The shiftless paperpusher fattened on your tax dollars doesn’t really exist.

Michelle Chen October 15, 2010

Want to get a dis­grun­tled work­er real­ly mad? Just point to his arch ene­my: the civ­il ser­vant. You know, the shift­less paper-push­er fat­tened on our tax dollars.

This might sound harsh to those of us who still think the gov­ern­ment has some use­ful func­tions. But bash­ing the gov­ern­ment and its work­ers has become a favorite pas­time for con­ser­v­a­tives like New Jer­sey Gov­er­nor Chris Christie, who has argued that pub­lic employ­ees enjoy unde­served­ly lav­ish com­pen­sa­tion while their pri­vate-sec­tor coun­ter­parts grap­ple with shrink­ing pay­checks. Why should strug­gling fam­i­lies’ tax dol­lars finance the bloat­ed wages of bureaucrats?

An analy­sis of New Eng­land pub­lic employ­ees by the Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy and Research and Polit­i­cal Econ­o­my Research Insti­tute dis­pels the myth of the spoiled” gov­ern­ment work­er. Researchers found that the region’s state and local work­ers are com­par­a­tive­ly dis­ad­van­taged. After account­ing for vari­ables like age and edu­ca­tion, state and local work­ers actu­al­ly earn less, on aver­age, than their pri­vate-sec­tor counterparts.”

The study found that the typ­i­cal mid­dle-wage work­er earns about three per­cent less in state and local work, and the typ­i­cal high-wage work­er makes about 13 per­cent less than a sim­i­lar pri­vate-sec­tor work­er.” The gov­ern­ment work­ers do tend to have bet­ter ben­e­fits, like sick leave and health insur­ance. But the researchers explained, ben­e­fits offered by state and local gov­ern­ments are rough­ly as gen­er­ous as those offered by large firms in the pri­vate sector.”

Sep­a­rate stud­ies by the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute have come to sim­i­lar con­clu­sions about pub­lic-pri­vate sec­tor par­i­ty. In Gov. Christie’s state, New Jer­sey pub­lic employ­ees, both state and local gov­ern­ment employ­ees, are not over­paid, but nei­ther are they under-compensated.”

More impor­tant than the direct com­par­i­son is the ques­tion of why the pub­lic sec­tor is such an easy tar­get for pop­ulist rage, rather than, say, bil­lion­aire CEOs who have bare­ly been nicked by the reces­sion. Per­haps buried in pop­u­lar pro-mar­ket group-think is a stealth cam­paign against pub­lic-sec­tor work­ers, and by exten­sion, the country’s last sub­stan­tial bas­tion of orga­nized labor. Union work­ers cur­rent­ly make up about 37 per­cent of the gov­ern­ment work­force, more than five times the pri­vate-sec­tor union­iza­tion rate.

Writ­ing in Gov­ern­ing, John Buntin argues that despite gov­ern­ment employ­ees’ rep­u­ta­tion as spoiled rot­ten, the mod­est advan­tages enjoyed by pub­lic-sec­tor work­ers are the prod­uct of a long labor-man­age­ment strug­gle. Much of pub­lic-sec­tor labor’s progress now risks being squan­dered in a flur­ry of bud­get cuts or an aggres­sive push toward pri­va­ti­za­tion of pub­lic institutions.

Pri­vate-sec­tor work­ers dev­as­tat­ed by the reces­sion might find cathar­sis in rail­ing against their kid’s teacher or DMV clerk. But it’s all too easy to slip reflex­ive­ly into anger at peers rather than ques­tion, on a struc­tur­al lev­el, what sep­a­rates those who get their fair share from those who don’t.

A longer ver­sion of this arti­cle can be read at Work­ing In These Times, this magazine’s work­ers’ rights blog.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.
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