Dark days for public employees No raises, no sympathy: Private sector troubles have eroded public workers' clout.

April 04, 1996

TIMES ARE TOUGH for teachers these days, but times are tough all over, which probably explains why their plight is provoking so little public outrage.

Of the Baltimore area counties, only Harford is offering teachers a raise this year. Once, people would have cared about this. Once, private-sector working-class citizens felt a certain kinship with teachers and other public employee unions. If government didn't come through with raises, they could empathize. If public unions scored a victory, they considered it a victory for working people everywhere.

No more. Recessions and downsizing have put thousands of people out of work and left those lucky enough to escape layoffs with stagnant wages and a nagging sense of insecurity. Buying power has plummeted for everyone, not just teachers. People are too busy trying to tread water to feel much sympathy for teachers who aren't getting raises, especially if that raise means more tax money out of their pockets.

Teachers and other public-sector workers -- most of whom aren't getting raises either -- can blame their predicament on two factors. One is economic. Union leaders tend to portray elected leaders as needlessly penny-pinching or mean-spirited, but municipal budgets are tight due to flat income and property ta revenue.

The other factor is political. The electorate's growing alienation from organized labor has weakened labor's clout. Especially in the suburbs, elected leaders are less apt to fear public employees' anger because their power derives from a different source -- from voters who put them in office based on a promise to provide sound but basic government service at an affordable price. These politicians are not operating in a vacuum; they answer to a constituency with different priorities than the unions. This is why they aren't responding to union pleas to fund raises by hiking the piggyback income tax or tapping into rainy-day funds. No groundswell of support for such measures exists.

That may change if the best teachers and other public workers start defecting to areas with better pay. But even if that did occur, it would take time and wouldn't impact current thinking. This year, public employees are less likely to hear people say they deserve a raise and more likely to hear, "They should feel lucky to have a job."

Pub Date: 4/04/96

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