Federal Employees News Digest

OPM outlines curbs on fed retirement—and labor expert pushes back

The White House and the Office of Personnel Management in recent weeks have shown determination to move forward on long-discussed cost-cutting measures on federal employee retirement. In a May 4 letter to Congress, OPM Director Jeff Pon outlined proposals to reduce the cost of federal retirement, using strategies that would hit each retiree’s bank account—raising required employee contributions, cutting or even scrapping cost-of-living increases,  and basing final payout calculations on the top five years of employee pay rather than the top three. This week, Nathan Abse discussed Pon’s proposals with a leading labor expert, William J. Puette. Puette, Director for the Center for Labor Education and Research at the University of Hawaii-West, offered his criticism of the plans—and a spirited defense of unions and labor as, historically, forces for better pay, benefits and a higher standard of living in Hawaii and the United States.

Q&A with William J. Puette

Debate has raged over “Are feds overpaid or underpaid?”—with this White House clearly seeing excessive compensation, as recently shown in OPM plans to cut retirement. Can you comment?

Puette: This is an important issue—cutting federal retirement and compensation for public employees. Locally, we have a lot of federal workers, specifically, in Hawaii. Many of them, for instance, work in the Navy facilities here. We have a lot of blue collar workers among them, so it is not just a white-collar employee issue. My concern here is that this—everything from curbs on union strength to plans to cut federal retirement—is that this is all taking place in a context of an overall attack on the public sector. And to go deeper, what I see as a basic trend across the country is that to the extent that unionization has been hit hard over many years now in the private sector, there is a public sector trend in that direction, now, too. A kind of, “See, you people should make as little as the lowest-paid people in the private sector.” And this is really a race to the bottom. There was a time when it was the other way around entirely, when the federal government was going to show the way, by treating people better and bring up the standard of living. It’s upsetting that in so many places we now see the direct opposite happening now. Let’s find the worst-treated, poorest-paid people in the country and let’s try to bring everyone all down to that level—including public employees, their pay and their benefits.

Could you say a little more about this trend you have identified?

Puette: It’s a very disturbing trend. It’s a trend against raising the standard of living. I remember when I was a kid we could brag that our country had the highest standard of living. And this was achieved, largely, because people in the public sector insisted on a minimum wage and a prevailing wage, and that helped to bring everything, standards and wages everywhere, up. Now we seem to be moving in a downward spiral. And some in politics and the private sector really look to bring down the pay in the public sector, now, as we see in this proposal, because they see the public sector as holding everything up to a higher level, and they want all that to come down. It’s sad when we see leading people who don’t care anymore, don’t care about raising the standard of living in the United States—but rather just about making some things cheaper, ultimately creating victims in our economy, victims that will be hit even worse in the next recession.

Why is that saleable, as an idea, to the public if it hurts so many people?

Puette: Because there is this whole appeal to a really awful instinct in humanity. It’s an instinct that says, “I don’t care if I am being treated badly—being abused and exploited—as long as someone is getting treated even worse.” You see? Someone at least is getting it worse than I am. I have actually seen this mindset in collective bargaining, where if someone gets a slightly better deal, and makes more money, then a fellow worker will resent it. “Gee, why do they make that little bit more?” If you’re in this mindset, you need to think about what you are saying there. You’re saying “I’ll feel better about making my not-so-great wages, just as long as this guy makes even worse wages.” It’s a terrible instinct. It’s being exploited. It leads to most people getting ever more exploited.

That’s a pretty depressing answer.

Puette: Yes. Mine is an unhappy answer to your question—but that’s my answer. You just have to realize that for some time now, blue-collar workers in America have been voting against their own best interests. I mean, there are so many side agendas, let’s call them, that get involved in our politics. You know? For example, guns and religion. These are often leveraged very well, very carefully handled to gain votes and influence for certain politicians and interests.

Do you see a future that might be better—for instance, does labor get a fair shake in the media?

Puette: Labor is getting better press, now, than it ever has—or has in a very long time. I wrote a book about this, by the way. But, there’s a problem. And it’s like this: When labor succeeds at helping to gain a better standard of living, that’s when it loses sympathy in society, especially from the press. There’s a great scene in the classic movie “Citizen Kane,” where a longtime friend of Kane’s explains to him, “Hey, the working man used to be a great friend to the working man, until they organized the unions and, well, now unions are just a corrupt conspiracy” Sort of like that. When you see the kindness we are getting from many in the media today, and that’s at the same time, of course, when we are getting so beaten up, whipped, very badly. It’s reaching a flash point, really, and that’s getting even more notice recently. For instance the Supreme Court’s Janus vs. vs. AFSCME  case and the concept of free ridership—these are really likely to weaken unions even further. People should read my book, Through Jaundiced Eyes. And I should update and add to it online, through social media and blogging, of course.

How do you get that across, about how important unions and their work has been to improving standards of living? Your finding that leveraging  union power might offer one way to a better future, better labor relations and pay, right?

Puette: It’s very hard to do, getting people to see that. Currently, I am working on Hawaii’s own labor history now. There are people who live here who forget how bad the plantations and that system here was. That’s because they were born after most of the worst of it had faded away. They are nostalgic for what’s old. I have to talk bluntly to them. I  have to say: Your grandparents and great-grandparents suffered through all that, hugely. But it is hard to get this across to them.

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