Progressivism and public sector unions

There’s a little fight brewing between Kevin Drum and Atrios: yesterday, Drum observed that members of the New York City Transit Union can retire with half pay at age 55, an arrangement that he dubbed “indefensible” even though he thinks Americans work too much and supports unions.

This led to a three different posts (with the usual sarcasm) from Atrios, suggesting that the only reason why Drum might find this indefensible is that he has fallen for some of the “strange attitudes toward work” that we have in this country.

My sense is that Atrios misses Drum’s point somewhat on this. Drum isn’t complaining about early retirement per se: he’s complaining about it in public employee unions. He’s suggesting that maybe one reason that public budgets are stretched too thin is because of early retirement packages; in other words, these packages prevent governments from doing a lot of the things that progressives want them to do.

Atrios argues that this isn’t that generous: who could survive on half of $55,000 (the New York City wage)? But that works against him: here in Los Angeles, it’s common for public employees to retire early (as early as 50 in many cases), and then go into consulting, essentially using the pension as a wage subsidy. Atrios is wrong to suggest that these employees aren’t working after 55: they are just working for the private sector and getting paid by the public sector at the same time. Then the city says it doesn’t have enough money to do things like maintain the park system and repair the roads. Voters just aren’t going to be too sympathetic to the government asking them for money in these circumstances.

An anecdote: 12 years ago, a friend of mine served on the transition team for incoming Mayor Richard Riordan. My friend was supposed to look at the budget for the city’s Department of Water and Power, and was told that 25% of the department’s budget was in pensions. He was incredulous, but was told blandly that “we have a very generous pension policy.” Quite.

This is, as I said, an anecdote: Atrios says that this really doesn’t cost employers much money. Empirics are everything here, and maybe Atrios is right, although he doesn’t provide any hard evidence.

But Drum is certainly right to raise the question of how this all fits into what we think of as progressive politics. Do we want to tell voters that they need to pay higher taxes so that former public employees can top off their salary to the tune of $27,500 a year?

Maybe we do. Maybe the public sector should be leading the way to a more humane labor policy, especially since the best way to do that–national labor law reform–is foreclosed by the Republican plutocracy. Certainly the reason for the fiscal crisis in our cities and state has a lot more to do with the dysfunctional health care system than with pensions. But maybe that’s unrealistic. And maybe the best way to persuade voters that government can work for them on a cost-effective basis is actually to have them do it. If urban parks are falling apart because a former city engineer is getting a $27,500 wage subsidy, that’s not a political argument that favors progressives.

—Jonathan Zasloff

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.