The early history of the American labor movement is an honorable one. When unions started out in the 19th century, a 10- to 12-hour workday and six-day workweek was the norm. Some factories even posted signs: “If you don’t come in on Sunday, don’t come in on Monday.”
Following hard-fought struggles, the labor movement achieved an eight-hour workday and a 40-hour week; child-labor and workplace-safety laws as well as other gains benefited not only union members but society as a whole. However, corporate CEOs aren’t the only ones capable of being greedy, and, over time, the demands of many unions went from legitimate and reasonable to excessive and exorbitant, to where unions ultimately succeed in driving many employers completely out of business. (Were it not for the recent government bailouts, General Motors and Chrysler would also be headed in that direction.)
Not surprisingly, therefore, the percentage of unionized workers as part of the overall workforce has been declining for decades. Today, only 7.6 percent of private-sector workers are unionized. What has seen an increase is the percentage of government employees who are union members. At present, 44 percent of all union members are in the public sector – federal, state or local. Though union rapaciousness has driven many private businesses under, government remains immune to that. One need only compare the salaries, benefits and workloads of public and private school teachers to see how, for public employee unions, government can be the goose that keeps laying golden eggs.
At first, unions saw no reason to organize government workers. Indeed, Congress enacted an eight-hour day for federal employees in 1868, when the U.S. labor movement was in its earliest infancy. Government employees, or civil servants, as they used to be known, traditionally enjoyed shorter work days, more vacation time, days off and other benefits, and especially far greater job security than their counterparts in the private sector. Only in average salary did they lag behind, which was considered a fair tradeoff in light of their better benefits combined with the belief that since they were employed by society as a whole, a somewhat below-average salary was reasonable since employees are supposed to earn less than their employers.
Government employee unions, however, put an end to that discrepancy long ago. According to the Commerce Department, in 2005 the average federal employee was paid $71,114 compared to just $43,917 in the private sector. Add in the value of benefits and a federal worker was paid $106,579, which is double the average in the private sector. In New Jersey, where I live, state employees put in a 35-hour week, have better medical and drug coverage, the best pension plan and get 15 vacation days, 13 holidays, 15 sick days (which can be saved) and three personal days a year. And many local governments offer even better benefits than those.
And so we have the phenomenon of many hard-working private-sector employees who might get as much as six paid holidays, a two-week vacation, and three or four sick days, if they’re lucky, with no “personal days” and often no pension benefits, paying taxes to support both working and retired civil servants, who live like kings compared to them.
In sixth-century China, the great philosopher Confucius (Kung Fu-tzu to you politically correct types) concluded that government jobs should be filled based on the applicant’s ability, as opposed to nepotism or other privileges, and he devised the first civil service exams. That idea caught on in America in the aftermath of the assassination of President James Garfield by a disappointed federal job seeker, with the passage of the Pendleton Act of 1883. By 1909, nearly two-thirds of federal employees had been appointed to their posts as a result of qualifications measured by exams. However, today only a minority of federal openings are filled via exams, and for state and local employment, the percentage is far lower.
When I was in college, the mother of a close friend of mine was the administrative assistant to a high-level manager at the New York City Board of Education. As a result, both he and I were able to get plum summer jobs that were not especially demanding but paid quite well. When I came to work the first day, a number of the regular employees asked me who in the office I was related to. As it turned out, I was the only one of six students hired for the summer who wasn’t a close relative of someone there.
In medieval Europe, government positions were usually limited to the nobility, who felt entitled to them and all their benefits by right of birth and nothing more. Now, in 21st–century America, President Obama is planning to significantly increase the number of government jobs. (Whether those jobs will truly be useful remains to be seen.) One thing is certain, however: There will always be far more job seekers than available positions. So, who gets the jobs?
Will the new employees be hired on merit, based on open and fair competition? Or as is now frequently the case, will they be reserved for the new nobility – the politically well-connected and members of special groups considered more desirable and more worthy of public benefits than others?