Taxpayers going postal over public employee pensions, perks

June 4, 2010

By PETER SCHEER—For public employee unions–those representing police, firefighters, teachers, prison guards and agency workers of all kinds at the state and local level–these are the worst of times.

Despite record high membership and dues, and years of unparalleled clout in state capitols, public sector unions find themselves on the defensive, desperately trying to hold on to past gains in the face of a skeptical press and angry voters. So far has the zeitgeist shifted against them that, on one recent weekend, government employees were the butt of a Saturday Night Live skit, followed, the next day, by a New York Times magazine cover article proclaiming the “Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand.”

Public unions’ traditional strength–the ability to finance their members’ rising pay and benefits through tax increases–has become a liability. Although private sector unions always have had to worry that consumers will resist rising prices for their goods, public sector unions have benefited from the fact that taxpayers can’t choose–they are, in effect, “captive consumers.”

At some point, however, voters turn resentful as they sense that: (1) they are underwriting, through their taxes, a level of salary and benefits for government employment that is better than what they and their families have; and (2) government services, from schools to the DMV, are not good enough—not for the citizen individually nor the public generally—to justify the high and escalating cost.

We are at that point.

In California, government sector unions, once among the most entrenched and powerful labor groups in the country, mainly have themselves to blame. For most of the post-war period, they were a force for progressive change, prospering by winning over public support for their agenda.

In the 1970s and 80s they backed laws like the Public Records Act and Brown Act to make state and local government more transparent. Because unions enjoyed broad-based political support, efforts to enhance government accountability and responsiveness to voters were seen–correctly–as benefiting the unions and their members.The public interest and public employees’ interests were aligned.

But the unions switched strategies. Although the change was gradual, by the 1990s California’s government unions had decided that, rather than cultivate voter support for their objectives, they could exert more influence in the Legislature, and in the political process generally, by lavishing campaign contributions on lawmakers. Adopting the tactics of other special interest groups, government unions paid lip service to democratic principles while excelling at the fundamentally anti-democratic strategy of writing checks to legislators, their election committees and PACs.

While not illegal (in fact, such contributions are constitutionally protected), the unions’ aggressive spending on candidates puts them on the same moral low ground as casino-owning tribes, insurance companies and other special interests that have concluded that the best way to influence the legislative process is to, well, buy it.

Public unions in California turned distrustful of voters and ambivalent about government transparency. In the mid-1990s unions backed improvements to the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, but also inserted a provision assuring that the public would have no access to collective bargaining agreements negotiated by cities and counties—often representing 70 percent or more of their total operating budgets—until after the agreements are signed.

What happens when voters and the press have no opportunity to question elected officials about how they propose to pay for a lower retirement age, healthcare for retirees’ dependents, richer pension formulas and the like? The officials make contractual promises that are unaffordable, unsustainable (and, in general, don’t come due until after those elected officials have left office). In the case of Vallejo, in northern California, this veil of secrecy, and the symbiotic relationship it fosters, has led to municipal bankruptcy.

The biggest blow to unions’ public support has come from revelations about jaw-dropping compensation and pension benefits. Police have received unwelcome attention for budget-busting overtime and the manipulation of eligibility rules for “disability pensions,” which provide higher benefits and tax advantages. Other government employees, particularly managers, have been called out for “pension-spiking:” Using vacation time, sick pay and the like to boost income in the last years of employment, which are the basis for calculating retirement benefits.

Such gaming of the system boosts starting pensions to levels that can approach, and even exceed, employees’ salaries. Some examples from the reporting of the Contra Costa Times’ Daniel Borenstein: A retired northern California fire chief whose $185,000 salary morphed into a $241,000 annual pension; a county administrator whose $240,000 starting pension was 98 percent of final salary; and a sanitary district manager who qualified for a $217,000 pension on a salary of $234,000. At a time when most Californians anticipate an austere retirement (if they can afford to retire at all), government pensions are a source of real voter anger.

The harm to the credibility of public employee unions from these excesses is made far worse by the unions’ attempts to hide them. The revelations about pay and pension abuses have surfaced only as a result of lawsuits. (Disclosure: The First Amendment Coalition has been a plaintiff in several of these cases.) Public employee unions, rather than taking the lead to stop abusive compensation practices, have vigorously opposed disclosure of individual employees’ salaries and pension amounts.

Public employee unions need to reboot. The old strategy of cynically buying political influence and excluding the public from decision-making has run its course. Unions can rebuild public support by recommitting to an agenda of open government in the public interest. If they don’t, they will be further marginalized.

Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.


Played like a conservative pundit. Incorrect with an URL to refute your error! Starting is $40k


Yes, and add in another $39K in benefits and you have a STARTING PAY job comping $79K per year, now divide that by the 37 week work year, and then divide that by the 36 hour work week and you have a STARTING comp of $60 an hour, and BULLET proof job security.

Oh, but wait, the comp goes up EVERY YEAR.

The AVERAGE comp for a teacher in this state, the highets paid in the nation, is $67K in salary and $39K in benefits, that is just the average, there are MANY districts where the top pay out of $150K per year in comp at around the 15th year. But they still only work 37 weeks per year, that is about $150 an hour.

As for your absoletely ridiculous claim that teachers, assistans and education administrators would make MORE int he private secotr-you have smoked too many of the whacky tobaccy. I bet you will also claim that our esteemed GED eductaed cops, FF’s and prison guards could also take their big bad GED’s into the private sector and make more-like maybe a million a year-right?

BTW, here is the link to teacher pay in this state-and I back my talk up with facts, not just a bunch of hot air, like in your posts.


Did you pay attention to where the highest salaries were paid? How much do you think it costs to live in the Bay Area? I doubt even with those salaries they could afford to live in the area they teach.

You sound naive when you say that the only thing a person needs is a GED to get a job as a fire fighter or a cop. Those people would not survive today if that’s all they have nor would they be hired.


Did you pay attention to where the highest salaries were paid? How much do you think it costs to live in the Bay Area? I doubt even with those salaries they could afford to live in the area they teach


You’re not “entitled” to live anywhere in the USA that you want flipside. That includes the Bay Area.

I want to live in Manhatten, and so do the maids, gardners and McDonold’s employees that work there-guess what-they don’t make enough money and cannot live there.

If you want to live in one of the highest cost areas in the nation then you should have been something besides a teacher. Or gtten a job for those 15 weeks of vacation you have,

No one is “entitled” to live where they work. What’s next, are you going to claim that hot dog vendors should be paid enought to live wherever they want too?

And once again we have the gov employee claiming that even though the REQUIREMENTS to be a cop or FF is ONLY a GED they never hire those people. Really? Then why do they let them apply? I will tell you why, because 80%+ of ALL cops and FF’s have either a GED or HS diploma at HIRE-nothing more.

But hey, don’t let the facts get in the way of a good gov employee whine. You might want to bring some cheese for your whine next time.

You’re obviously one of these pampered gov employees who feel they are “entitled” to engage in fraud-but as the article spells out-those days are over.


“And once again we have the gov employee claiming that even though the REQUIREMENTS to be a cop or FF is ONLY a GED they never hire those people. Really? Then why do they let them apply? I will tell you why, because 80%+ of ALL cops and FF’s have either a GED or HS diploma at HIRE-nothing more.”

You seem to make an lot of noise and throw around numbers but I have seen little proof. Quite frankly I think you are full of Sh@t. I think you would be surprised at the amount of people who do the job, do it well and expect nothing more.



LOL..that crushed me :)


Boy you must not know any cops. I know some that have a junior college education and others that have just a high school education, which is all what most entry level cop jobs require. People who promote later may go back to school but that is another arguement.


I know all kinds of cops, and I know what they had for education when hired.

I already said that the ENTRY level educational requriement was just a GED, and NO prior work experince, for a job that comps $200K per year, so why repeat that fact?? We all know that already.

People who promote do not need to have ANY extra schooling at all. The Orange County Sheriff two years ago had JUST a GED, so your claim that more schooling is needed to promote is just public employee union spin.

The former Chief of the LAPD did not even have a 4 year college degree, for the 2nd largest PD in the nation. So please stop your gov employee spinning.

The question is why are we comping a GED job at $200K per year, especially when so many qualified applicants want to do the work???…..more so for the FD.

Oh-Please try to spin that “dangerous” baloney on my, so I can shoot it down in my next post.


What firefighters are making 200K? Not here in SLO……Are you talking about the Chief or management when you refer to firefighters?


CalperisaScam, easy, cool your jets man. If you follow the thread my responce was to Flipside not you. Look at my posts in this whole thread and I think you would realize were I stand. I am NOT a fan of unions.


I find it interesting that people equate a 4 year degree with the ability to to do a job. How many people are actually hired in the profession that they are “schooled” and really what does it have to do with how well they do a job? If a police or fire chief has a 4 year degree in basket weaving and runs a great department ,is the argument a valid one? Does the public really care if business is being handled?


Agreed. No degree. So why are we paying so much. We pay cops in SLO 104k a year!! That is ridiculas. You are right we need to bring cops and firefighters salaries and pensions in line with reality.


Got your back up a little, eh? You know and I know that present retirees could have earned more money when they started working. Not now. Nobody will ever make as much as they once did, ever again. Instead, teachers and others took the timid route with a government job, raised families and, by and large, retired with pretty good pensions. Others sold go-go stocks and real estate and voted in crooks who spawned Enron, Bush and hedge funders. The world went to hell because of policies like that. They gutted the middle class like a fish. They laugh at pro life, pro gun and anti gay supporters who are now without a pot. But, they still have government pensions and illegal aliens to divert attention while they come back to fleece and trick again. Stockholm Syndrome in Fox Land. How is that Proposition 13 bubble house looking these days? All we are doing is fighting over what is left.


Yes they took the timid route. Find a job that requires little education, pays decent, good retirement and even if you are the WORST employee ever, it takes an act of God to fire your sorry ass.


The ONLY people who gutted the middle class are public employees and fraudstirs like Enron and Goldman Sachs. You can hardly call cops, ff’s and prison guards with GED’s making in the top 5% in the nation “middle class”-but they sure are wiping out the middle class with their fraud.

And please get real, a gov employee would never, in a million years, be able to cut it in the real world at even minimum wage. They don’t have the skill, the mentality or the drive to succeed. That is why they work in the gov.

Gov emplopyment is mediocrity, at best.


I think your nasty comments about our government workers is a bit much. Some are bums (as exposed on this site many times) but others are not. All the anti government rhetoric is pretty weird, who would you have doing government work? Maybe it could be run better at all levels, but we will always have it so we should work to make it better.


I think your nasty comments about our government workers is a bit much.


They are honest comments.

Sorry if they offend you, but someone always says that when you attack a fraudulent system, which gov employment is, that you’re “nasty”…… and so forth.

Don’t hate the messenger, hate the messege.


“…telling us how they and their jobs, are so much more important than all the rest of us peeons that pay their salary.” BTDT

That’s the point. They shouldn’t be reduced to what the “peons” are making, the “peons” should be raised to what they are making. Yet the massive corporate propaganda has been so successful that workers enable their masters time and time again in an Orwellian Stockholm syndrome and become divided into opposing camps venting their hostility at one another.

400 people received 380 $ BILLION in the last decade while wages for workers have continued to decrease. Taxes for those rich have decreased while taxes for the workers have increased. We’ve all been had and many of you enable them to keep doing it.


Bravo, Orwellian Stockhom Syndrome. Tom, really! Do you think the pea brains can follow such elegant terminology? But anyway, thanks for putting it so succinctly.

Divide and conquer, the oldest game in the book. The corporate slave masters (such as PG and E pushing their fascist Prop 16 rip off) have become adept at getting the rabble to fight amongst themselves for scraps instead of toppling the major power structure that sucks our blood.

On this blog we are furiously insulting each other but I will bet we are all under 100k workers, driven by one ideology or another. The fat cats are sipping their martinis laughing their asses off at the carnage they have created at our pitiful level. And i would be that on specific issues we would agree on many points if we took the opportunity to talk details. But we are too harried and busy and angry and stupid to get together and talk. I went to a tea party gig a few months ago, just to see what they were up to. I talked to a guy there and we agreed on everything we discussed-yet he was furious with the likes of me across the street and he stormed off, half out of his mind with anger. But we agreed on all the basic principles we discussed, yet he insisted on being mad-crazy…

Mr. Holly

You all ought to check with your local jurisdictions and inquire what the benfit packages are for government emplyoees. Our local firemen and policemen have benefit packages that cost taxpayers 60 =/- % of what they are paid. After working all my life and paying taxes to support all of these rip offs it makes me wonder about my social security check I cash.


We need more unions not less. More exaggerated push back from our corporate masters who fear that those in the private sector will want the same pay and rights as those in the public sector.

fat chance

F unions….they are going to break this country. The sad part is they don’t even care!!


Way wrong comment. Most humans are only concerned about themselves, so singling out unions is bull. They are made up of a cross section of the public, I’ll bet many tea baggies and all other types of folks work in gummint, and in unions. I’m in favor of unions, without them the workers would get the shaft as they used to. Are you against workers?

But if unions act up and create problems then I am interested in solving those issues.


PS – who is the writer? Is he a local reader or someone with an agenda merely spreading his opinion to anyone who will give him free space? My guess is he belongs to some “all government is bad” organization that has no solution other than to reduce the size of government at all costs. If that’s the case, his credibility is in question.


Question. You ask who the writer is and what organization he belongs to. Let me guess. You must be on the Gov’t dole?


Teabaggers. Don’t look for solutions, look for an “other” to blame for failed conservatism.


Ah, another person who just uses slogans but no thoughts of their own.


Slomike.. you haven’t actually stopped to think if that makes any sense have you? Not looking for a government solution doesn’t equate to not looking for a solution. If someone believes that a free market system is a better way, then dismantling government intervention or preventing further government intervention by not supporting legislation IS a solution being offered.

Don’t be so quick to think that lack of regulation has proven to be problematic either. Generally speaking, new regulations are necessary to compensate for the unintended consequences of other regulation. If you have any interest in stepping beyond cliche’s in your perception of other viewpoints, I am always happy to explain and provide more specific examples by email. I realize there are plenty of “conservatives” that are also guilty of cliche’s and narrow perspectives.. generally those people don’t actually understand the principles true conservatives offer though, they just jump on the bandwagon because they like the way something sounds.

One great thing about the free-market.. if you don’t like the way a community or company does something, you are free to opt-out and work with another community or company. The unfortunate thing about government solutions is that you must submit, there is no escape, and if you do not go along force will be used.


Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I do like pithy cliches. One thing I don’t like about conservative cliches is that one must “believe” in immutable “principles”. I feel that approach is fine for religion, but less so for human systems. We have seen the free market lead us from bubble to bust repetitively. A real, rather than “Invisible” hand on the rudder might lead to fewer billionaires. Have we not had to submit to environmental and economic chaos thanks to doing away with regulation? Any escape?


slomike, I have several friends who are high school teachers in CA. They are all earning upwards of 75K. If you consider that they only work 9 months a year, that equates to a 100K annual salary. I might add that unlike the private sector, teachers work 6 hours per day, not the standard 8 or even 12+ that many of us in the private sector work for our salary. When teachers work overtime such as participating in extra curricular school activities they are paid extra. Oh yes sure, they will tell us all about the lessons that they have to plan and correcting papers. The fact is that they plan their lessons for a year and then they utilize those plans throughout the subsequent years. They also participate in “study halls” as part of their daily curriculum and that is where they correct their papers. My sister in law retired at 55 years of age with more than 85% of her salary. I never in the 25 years that she taught saw her sitting down correcting papers at home or planning any lessons. I don’t begrudge her a great pay or an early and secure retirement at 55, she was a great mother to my nieces and nephews, but that isn’t the point.


Cindy don’t confuse all the naysayers with facts. All you do is frustrate them with the truth and reality. ;-)


Hmmm. I know teachers who take home work to grade all the time. They spend nights and weekends doing this extra unpaid work. And I think many of them actually have some responsibilities during the summer. I’m fuzzy on that and will check it out but I recall hearing that the ‘9 month’ argument isn’t really fair.


Hmmm. I know teachers who take home work to grade all the time. They spend nights and weekends doing this extra unpaid work


I hate to break this to you, but;

#1) grading papers is NOT “unpaid work” for teachers-it is a part of their job, a job that they are comped much better for than others with the same education I might add, and have NONE of the bullet proof job security.

#2) Very few teachers take work home or on the weekends, they have a daily prep period which is the allotted time for grading papers.

You must not be very familair with the CA education system, the most expensive in the nation yet produces some fo the worst results.


I think many of them actually have some responsibilities during the summer. I’m fuzzy on that and will check it out but I recall hearing that the ‘9 month’ argument isn’t really fair.


Once again you show your public employee bias and mentality.

Teaches are paid an annual compensation, averaging $107K per year, for a 37 week work year-they do NOT have ANY responsiblities outside of those 37 work weeks-it is 15 weeks of straight vacation.

And to top that off the average work week is only 36 hours.

They are comped extremely well in CA.


ummm, Cindy, if a teacher makes 75K a year, how does that equate to 100k?


ummm, Cindy, if a teacher makes 75K a year, how does that equate to 100k?


Did you add in their $39K average in benefits??

Didn’t think so.


The problem with most conservative cliches about believing in immutable principles is that the people delivering them are generally misinformed or they are liars. So in that context, I can understand your aversion to the “invisible hand” of the free market that these people espouse.

But the truth is much different than most Americans perceive. In fact, there has been a real hand on the rudder and that is precisely the problem. The problem begins with the creation of the National Banking System, which had been sought after by Wall Street Bankers wishing to create a more elastic money supply. This allowed them to generate inflationary booms as a result of credit expansion. But late in these inflationary cycles, people would start to pull their deposits for savings/investment elsewhere. This created a lot of insolvent banks, who then had to contract their loans rapidly, leading to financial crisis.

They needed a lender of last result to continue to carry on their manipulations, and they used these financial crisis to convince people that the free market was the cause and this led to the creation of the Federal Reserve to manage the money supply, manage inflation, and manage unemployment (all directly related).

The boom/bust cycles that we have observed in the last 100 years, like the depression and the most recent catastrophe, have been caused not by a lack of regulation which allowed a few sharks to go willy nilly, but by credit expansion and artificially low interest rates created by the Fed. These expansions, fueled by fiat money, have often been accompanied by government regulations facilitating malinvestment in the bubbles.

Using this last crisis as an example… the fed kept interest rates artificially low. Credit expansion was made possible not by savings, but by inflation. Simultaneously, the government created vehicles to buy up a large amount of the mortgage derivatives created in the market. This made possible the crazy mortgage deals. No longer did the company who originated the mortgage hold on to it until maturity. In that case, greater care would have been used. But now they would just package them up into CDOs and sell them off. And of course those who invested in them or created them would hedge their bets with CDSs.

You can pass all the regulation that you want, and prevent the last scenario from happening again… but ultimately this manipulation of the money system will create a similar set of circumstances, and the crooks will simply think up new complex derivatives or other methods of milking the situation. I guarantee you they can think of this stuff faster than Barney Frank or the SEC can figure out what’s going on.

So all that being said, and I hope you managed to stay with me without falling asleep, what you perceive to have been the invisibile hand functioning was not the invisible hand at all, but the hand of the top bankers. Until this market/monetary manipulation is broken, and the system returned to the true “invisible hand,” we will have the boom/bust cycles.. precisely the things which the Fed was supposedly set up to avoid.


Sally – please state your source for the $30K salary bonus you claim for public sector workers. It’s easy to blurt out such claims, but do they really stand up to close scrutiny? Are you lumping school employees into this broad stoke generalization? I highly doubt you’ll find a single school worker – teacher, support team or admin who is earning anywhere near what they could earn in the private sector. I don’t know about prison guards, highway workers or others, but school workers don’t fit your charge.


I think at one time government employees sacrificed some salary for the better benefits, but now they make much more in both salary and benefits. The fact that there is a pension at all is completely foreign to the private sector world… a small contribution to a retirement plan is about as good as it gets.


I strongly disagree with you Mr. Seybert. For 2008-2009, the starting salary for a teacher in SLO Unified with a bachelors is $60k, highest is $85k, and average is $70k. ( Keep in mind this does not include any bonuses, or extra-curricular pay and this is for 9 months out of the year. Most of these people do not have specialized skills and it is highly doubtful that many of these people would make more in the private sector.

People do not realize that education is NOT underfunded. It is a MASSIVE portion of the state budget at $35 billion dollars for 2009-2010, or 29% of the total budget. Our education system has plenty of problems, but underfunding is not one of them.


Played like a conservative pundit. Incorrect with an URL to refute your error! Starting is $40k. For a person with a BA. A BA earned by borrowing tens of thousands of dollars. The qualifier, “Plus 60 continuing education units” will, in time, lead to $60k. When our aging, retiring 60+ year old teachers were starting out, they were pitied their career choice by Young Republicans who would die rich thanks to Reaganomics. Now that the “You know how to spend your money better than the government does” IRAs and 401Ks see an economic oil plume threatening, well it is time to go after those who thought ahead wisely.


Mike, mike, mike. They didn’t think ahead wisely. Throughout the ’90’s, the Unions strong armed California. These people did nothing but pay there union dues to the union thugs.


“Those that thought ahead wisely” Are you kidding Mike. The fact is that the you and other government employees pensions are unsustainable. It amounts to a huge pyramid scam that will run out of money in time. In the private sector you get paid for the most part what you are able to provide towards profits for the company. You cannot be paid more, if you are than chances are, the organization will not last long doing that. (unless the government decides to bail you out but that’s another story). The private sector figured out that pensions are unsustainable a long time ago. Those with unions (GM, Chrysler, etc) did not and they would have failed, instead taxpayers will subsidize there largess as well. Its kind of ironic this backlash shows teachers may be doing a decent job after all, because most people seem to understand the truth.


I’m sorry, but if a teacher doesn’t have a B.A., unless they are an amazing self-taught expert on some particular subject, should even be teachers at all? THAT is why I started at the 60k mark.

But please, let’s keep the discussion linear or it is not productive. What I was refuting was your statement that “school workers don’t fit your charge.” You tell me a job in private industry where someone can start out at 40k with no degree. You tell me where these teachers can make $85k a year without specialized skills.

I think that you are splitting hairs, and that I successfully refuted your point.


I highly doubt you’ll find a single school worker – teacher, support team or admin who is earning anywhere near what they could earn in the private sector.


Part of my last post was directed at you Jim, not slowmike. Mixed up two posts

Your above claim is patently absurd, and there is not a grain of truth to it.

I doubt most education employees could even get a job at WalMart in this economy.

But don’t let the facts get in the way of your fantasy life :)



For all the naysayers, there it is folks. Black and white. Like it or not. The best line is in the third paragraph, “captive consumers”. That is an EXCELLENT point!! We have no regress. The unions in this state need to be bought back in line with REALITY, something they haven’t seen in YEARS!


P.S. can’t wait for all the firefighters, police and teachers to start posting and telling us how they and their jobs, are so much more important than all the rest of us peeons that pay their salary.


Maybe they have something productive to do, rather than listen to whiners like us go back and forth! Possibly, the majority of these folks took their jobs because they enjoy those occupations. Would you work in those jobs if you couldn’t be in the top 5% (somebody show me THAT “fact” source) in earnings? I know a lot of impoverished 80+ retirees on public retirement, private retirement and Social Security. Someday we will all wish we had worked harder and smarter and not wasted time on the internet.


Thanks for the laugh mike, I needed that. I know 4 cops. They all took it for the PAY, not love of something holier. Nice try. They said they hate the job but the pay keeps them going.

Only have know a few firefighters back in the ’90’s. They did seem to like the thrill a bit but again the perks etc. keep them going. I know two both out on lifetime disability, one with a bad knee yet plays paintball regularly. He is 46 and been on disability since 37. Guess they can’t teach them desk jobs, because all they want to do is save all us??


If all state, county, and city employees were paid comparably to the private sector and had comparable benefits including pensions, every one would be running at surplus.

Studies show the average state employee make $30,000 more per year then the same job in the private sector, that does not include benefits.

The problem is they have so much money they control the elected officials in Sacramento, the county and the cities.

The only way I see to fix the problem is for it to be done by th bankrupcy judge, and that is coming.


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