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Government Workers: Our Allies Or Adversaries?

— The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) this week told us that our country lost 159,000 government jobs in September, resulting in another month of overall jobs losses for the U.S. economy.

Is that bad news or good news?

If you think that’s an absurd question you haven’t paid much attention this electoral season. The role of government as an employer, and the size of its staff, is the key political controversy in this era of recessionary economics and flagging budgets. It’s the reason why San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders is promising taxpayers fiscal reforms in return for a sales tax increase… reforms which include greater efforts to outsource government work to the private sector.

Whether or not you want the government to employ lots of people typically depends on whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican. But there is a dynamic here that makes taxpayers and government workers adversaries, virtually by definition. If you’re a taxpayer, public employees work for you. You're management and they're labor.

They’re not just labor, they’re organized labor. The BLS reports that in 2009 more union members worked for the public sector than the private sector. If you look at the rate of union membership it’s 37 percent in the public sector and just seven percent in private industry. In San Diego, 93 percent of city employees are represented by unions.

In the spirit of full disclosure I will point out that my wife works for the City of San Diego and is a member of the Municipal Employees Association (MEA).

In a country where disparities in income have grown horrifically in the past 50 years, the public sector looks more and more like the last bastion of stable, middle-class employment. Public employees are not only our spouses (as in my case). They’re also our neighbors who support local businesses and help maintain our communities. When I lived in the Midwest, it was typical for government to be the largest employer, by far, in small towns that were lucky enough to hang on to their schools and post offices.

But then there's that tricky labor-management thing.

The raison d'etre of any public employee union is to get the best possible salary, benefits and working conditions for their members. Teachers’ unions may actually care about educating kids, but that’s incidental to their true purpose. It’s not what’s best for the kids, it’s what’s best for their members.

The city of San Diego has been embarrassed by revelations of city pensions that exceed $200,000 a year. In Western Europe the civil service has become a huge weight that’s quickly making government spending unsustainable.

High taxes have created a very good life for ordinary people in Europe. But there’s a limit to the number of social benefits your can offer. There’s a limit to the number of people you can allow to retire at age 55 with a sizable pension and full health care benefits.

Determining the size and role of government has become the essence of political conflict in the U.S. Let the debate continue. Just know that government jobs are jobs too, and losing a job is never good news.

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