Plunder! Dissects Government Unions

How’s your government treating you lately? I thought so. Unjust wars. Torture. Inflation. Wild spending. Record deficits. Record debt. Bankruptcy. Police brutality. Officious officials. Depression.

It’s time to get even. Or at least get an explanation.

That’s just what you get in Steven Greenhut’s shocking Plunder!: How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation. Although it covers government at all levels, it mainly focuses on state and local governments’ assaults on citizens’ pocketbooks and liberties.

Greenhut is familiar to LRC readers as the deputy editorial page editor and columnist for The Orange County Register from 1998 to 2009. He was my colleague there for eight of those years. He is the best journalist of local and state government in America, digging into the roots of corruption, largesse, and repression that have grown so alarmingly in recent years.

This fall he left The Register to head the new Investigative Journalism Center and News Bureau at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento.

You won’t find a better writer, so this is an easy read of 240 pages – plus some resources in back to continue the fight. But you’ll find yourself stopping every few pages to open a window, stick your head out, and scream, like Howard Beale in Network, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not taking this any more!”

Although the central (“federal”) government’s oppression is increasingly pervasive and poisonous, most of us still deal more often with local or state authorities. Most of us also have a favorable opinion of a great school teacher, a fireman who brought down a child’s cat from a tree, or a cop who helped change a flat tire on a car. And most of us have local government workers as our neighbors and friends. Government is so big now, it’s hard not to.

But in just the past three decades, government has far outstripped any rational limit on its size. As Greenhut reports, as recently as the 1970s (and I can confirm this from memory), government workers usually were paid a salary slightly less than private-sector counterparts. But they got great benefits, a decent pension, and sterling job security.

Since then, government pay and benefits have ballooned like Gov. Schwarzenegger when he used to inject himself with steroids. An example: The local firefighters’ union in Orange County “gets annoyed when anyone refers to” their average annual pay and compensation of $175,000, Greenhut writes. “Officials there confirm its accuracy, but complain that it unfairly angers taxpayers because the number includes the cost to the county for every benefit that firefighters receive.”

Poor babies. Imagine buying a new car for $15,000. When you pull out your checkbook, the salesman says, “Actually, it’s $25,000. We have to ad in pension and other benefits for the auto workers.”

And though firefighting is an essential job, Greenhut notes that in most communities volunteer fire departments do the job.

Dangerous jobs?

But aren’t public safety jobs among the most dangerous in America? Not really. Here’s the list of most dangerous jobs, as complied by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

1. Fishing-related workers.

2. Logging workers

3. Pilots and flight-related workers

4. Iron and steel workers

5. Taxi cab drivers

6. Construction workers

7. Farmers and ranchers

8. Roofers

9. Electrical power workers

10. Truck drivers and sales-related drivers

11. Garbage collectors

12. Law enforcement

Moreover, people going into these jobs know they might be dangerous. That’s their choice. An Alaska crab fisherman, whose fatality rate on the job is 90 times that of the average worker, knows he could drown. Yet he chooses to do the job anyway.

A widely quoted 1999 article by Thomas Aveni of the Police Policy Council claims that the job so stressful that police officers, on average, live to be only 53–66 years of age. “If that were so,” quips Greenhut, “there would be no unfunded liability problem because of pension benefits.”

In fact, policemen and firemen live about as long as everybody else. Greenhut quotes a study by the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System on the age-60 life expectancies for the system’s workers (the years they can expect to live after 60):

* Police and fire males: 22.6.

* General and service males: 23.4.

* Police and fire females: 25.7.

* General service females: 25.7.

Pension tsunami

These facts have not prevented the recent trend – caused by overwhelming union power over politicians – of pension spiking. Not just police and fire, but many other government retirees get “3 percent at 50.” Greenhut explains: “So if a police officer starts working at age 20, he can retire at 50 with 90 percent of his final salary until he dies, and then his spouse receives that for the rest of her life. The taxpayer typically makes the complete retirement contribution throughout the officer’s years of work.”

And pay is, indeed, generous. “If he earned a slightly above-average California police salary of $100,000 a year (base, not counting overtime, which is not calculated in the retirement formula), he would receive $90,000 a year until he dies.”

In his mid-50s, the retired officer commonly would take another job – often in government, with another tax-funded pension.

Taxpayers are on the hook for 100 percent of the pensions – no matter how bad the economy gets. And taxpayers are stuck paying for bad investments. The California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) stupidly invested heavily in the recent real estate boom. (I guess they don’t read LRC.)

Greenhut writes, “The bubble burst and CalPERS lost 103 percent of the value of its housing investments in one fiscal year. Here’s the kicker: CalPERS not only blew its investments on some shady deals, it borrowed money to leverage those deals. So it has to pay back the borrowed cash as well.”

The replenishment money comes, of course, from taxpayers – the same taxpayers who took hits on their houses, 401(k)s, and other investments during the current bust, but can’t get reimbursed.

The pension abuse now is breaking the backs of the budgets of many cities and states. The California city of Vallejo went bankrupt after 75 percent of its budget went to police and fire benefits and salaries. California’s ongoing budget crisis of the past 10 years – if honest numbers are used, it hasn’t balanced a budget since 2000 – is the direct result of outrageous public employee pay and benefits.

Abuse of power

Even worse than the extravagant pay is the abuse of power by union-protected government authorities. Greenhut cites the case of teacher Carlos Polanco, who was accused by the Los Angeles Unified School District of “immoral and unprofessional conduct” for making fun, in front of his class, of a student who had just returned after a suicide attempt.

Greenhut: “That’s horrifying and a good reason to fire this cruel man, who obviously has little concern for the safety of his students and lacks common decency. The school board voted to fire him, but that’s just the first part in the Rube Goldberg-like maze of the firing process in a district that…fires far fewer than 1 teacher per 1,000 a year. No wonder. The union-dominated Commission on Professional Competence overruled the Polanco firing. The commission found technical reasons why it could not rule on the unprofessional behavior accusations – the notice of dismissal wasn’t provided by the proper deadline. And then the commission unanimously found that Polanco’s behavior was not immoral because ‘it was not established that Javier was ever suicidal, that he ever intended to harm himself, or that he in fact had ever been hospitalized’.”

Then there are the abuses by the guys with guns. Police now commonly are protected from even the most reasonable scrutiny of their activities. Due to state laws and court rulings, Greenhut observes, “I’ve found that in covering cases of alleged excessive force, or when police are involved in deadly shootings, that it is no longer possible to find out if the officer has a history of abusive or violent behavior…. And even a watered-down bill that would have restored some level of open records to the process was shut down thanks to the unified efforts of Republican and Democratic legislators. Police unions used the most heavy-handed and dishonest tactics to stop the legislation.”

He provides a horrifying example: “After Huntington Beach officers Shawn Randell and Read Parker fired 15 shots at Ashley MacDonald in September, killing the distraught teen as she held a pocketknife in a nearly empty city park, I expressed shock in print: You mean two male officers could come up with no better way to subdue a young girl than to shoot her to death? In response, the usual suspects (the police chief, the police union, unthinking defenders of anything that police do) argued that I should not rush to judgment. I should not draw a conclusion before the official investigation, handled by the Sheriff’s Department, is completed and the results released, they argued.

“So I went back to an incident in Huntington Beach 2½ years ago in which Steven Hills, a distraught man who, according to police, had called 911 and made threatening statements, was shot by police 29 times and killed. The report of the investigation is done. Plenty of time has passed. Since the HBPD tells me that I shouldn’t rush to judgment on the MacDonald case, but wait until the report is complete, I thought it only fair to look at the report about Hills. Well, the police department and the Sheriff’s Department won’t release that report. It is exempt from the public records act. That’s quite a scam: Shut up until the investigation is done, but once it’s done, it’s none of your business.”

What should be done?

The ongoing Depression is finally making Americans wonder why they stand in unemployment lines while government workers enjoy lavish pay, perks, and benefits. And cases of brutality are making many wonder why police and prosecutors have been given such excessive powers.

Greenhut calls, first, for outlawing public employee unions: “There is absolutely no public good served by it, especially in a world of civil service protections. In fact, such unionization is a relatively recent phenomenon,” dating only to the 1960s.

Would that violate government employees’ rights to influence their own government? Hardly – because they are the government. A government union sits on both sides of the negotiating table, representing the employees who get the benefits on one side – and, on the other side, influencing the politicians who use tax money to pay the benefits.

Greenhut ads, “Legislatures should impose tighter restrictions on union political contributions. States should also pass paycheck protection measures that allow union members to withhold dues payments that are used for political purposes.”

During the last government-caused Great Depression, the one in the 1930s, citizens revolted against government excesses. It’s well past time for another revolt. Plunder! provides the facts, the outrage, and the ammunition.

Get it. Read it. Use it.

(For those living in Southern California, Steven Greenhut will be discussing his book, and signing copies, at 6 p.m. today, Dec. 10. Location: Barnes & Noble, 791 S. Main Street, Orange, CA 92821; directly across from the MainPlace Shopping Mall. Phone: 714-558-0028. The event will be filmed by C-SPAN.)

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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