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Insight by Mike Causey: Bridging the gap

A well-known motivational speaker has, as one of his key points, a phrase that could help all of us: Measure twice, cut once. So what does that have to do with federal pay scales? Maybe a lot.

During my long (a fact) and illustrious (up for debate) newspaper career, I headed our union for two years. The job was officially called Unit Chairman.

Ours was the largest newspaper, by far, in the region and the union repeesented the largest unit within the building. Membership was mandatory, up to a point. Under the deal we had, three of every four new hires had to join the union. Or they didn't get hired.

Our union, the Newspaper Guild, represented reporters, editors, photographers and administrative employees from the accounting department and sales staff.

Other unions, those representing printers, engravers, sterotypers (crafts that have all disappeared at newspapers) were smaller but stronger. Membership was compulsory, and if any two of the craft unions went out on strike, they could shutdown operations.

In the case of our union, with its three-out-of-four rule, management could pick who had to go into the union and which one of four new hires was exempt.

Our goal was to build up enough membership in key spots so that if we went on strike, it would shut down the newspaper. Management’s goal was the opposite. They wanted to have enough exempt employees in key jobs so they could keep operating if we went out on strike. They won.

We went out on strike twice, and both times the paper operated, albeit on a shoe-string, almost as if nothing happened. In fact, the paper saved a ton of money in salaries even as we were trying to bring them to their knees. We called it "withholding our excellence." Problem was that while we were withholding it, nobody noticed. So what's the point?

During one of our contract negotiations (usually every two or three years) we proposed that a team of reporters, photographers, accounting types and the like go out and survey other newspapers and comparable jobs in the private sector. We would check out what they were paying, and come back with recommendations (which would be mandatory) about our next pay raise.

I can still hear the management team and labor relations guy laughing. The idea that we—ace journalists that we were—would come up with a fair pay study struck them as ludicrous.

"You guys make the pay survey and you come back and tell us how much we owe you, right?" is what they said. I well remember hearing the phrase "inmates running the asylum" more than once.

Which is part of the problem with the "gap" between federal pay and private-sector pay.

Most outside studies, whether by conservative think tanks or bipartisan congressional groups, show that feds are paid more than the average American worker, and more than people doing the same jobs in the private sector.

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton insisted that the only way to gauge public vs. private pay was to use a total compensation approach. That is, measuring the value of pay plus benefits such as vacation, sick leave and retirement.

Government comparisons of federal vs. private-sector pay (using only salaries) come up with a different conclusion. They have consistently shown that in most jobs, most feds are paid less, considerably less, than their private-sector counterparts. Federal unions say the approach used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and others is more accurate because it reflects the fact that in government (but not the private sector) women and minorities in the same GS grades and steps make the same as their white male counterparts.

What's missing—and what may never be found or adopted—is a system that would compare federal vs. private-sector pay, or using "total compensation," that a majority of Americans, in and outside of government, will believe.

(For the record, over my 30 years with The Washington Post, scores of reporters left to take jobs in the government. Many were in public affairs offices, some in policy positions. None of them, to my knowledge, took a pay cut to join Uncle Sam. Most got substantial raises. During the same period, three people that I knew from government came into the newspaper. All of them took a pay cut. Whether this means something not, I don’t know.)

So for now, depending on who is saying it, you are either grossly overpaid or ridiculously underpaid.

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