Now, the perks that came with being a firefighter or a teacher have become a target, not only for conservative lawmakers but for Democrats under pressure to make deep cuts in government budgets.
Experts note a decline in public support for government workers and their powerful unions, a sentiment shared by conservative activists eager to weaken organized labor. And never have they been more confident than this week, when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) fended off a recall attempt orchestrated largely by unions outraged at his efforts to end collective bargaining for most public employees and teachers.
“We absolutely intend to use this going forward,” said Brendan Steinhauser, spokesman for FreedomWorks, a tea party organization that has been working to undercut public employee unions’ power through state legislatures. The group views the failed attempt to unseat Walker as a powerful motivator for other Republican governors.
The message, Steinhauser said, is: “Be bold, be a leader, be a conservative and you’ll be rewarded.”
Wisconsin is one of several places where public employees have become targets this year. San Diego and San Jose residents voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to cut pension benefits for city workers. The votes followed dramatic steps to curb union power in Indiana and Louisiana, and efforts by some in Congress to freeze salaries and whittle away benefits for federal workers.
Lawmakers in Pennsylvania and elsewhere are considering legislation that would weaken teachers unions. And some conservatives plan to push Republican leaders in Michigan, where lawmakers have had limited success curbing union power, to redouble their efforts in the wake of Walker’s victory next door.
Public workers have also borne much of the brunt of job cutting in recent years. Since June 2008, state and local governments have shed more than 500,000 jobs. And while the private sector has experienced some recovery, public sector job losses continue to mount.
Karen McDonough, who has worked in the city of San Jose’s environmental services department for two decades, said before Tuesday’s vote she tried to change voters’ minds by telling them her version of the story: that she is a hardworking senior employee who had gone years without a pay raise.
“The response I got the most was ‘I don’t get a pension. Why should you?’ ” McDonough said in an interview Thursday. “I tried to explain to them that [the pension] is part of our total compensation, that we don’t get stock options and bonuses. We’re just different. That is not something they’re interested in hearing anymore.”
Public employee unions, which became the heart of the labor movement with the decline of manufacturing unions, have lost the public relations battle, experts say. Once viewed as middle-class stalwarts who labor for the common good, government workers now are often seen as unwilling to make the same sacrifices as their counterparts in the private sector.