[Viewpoint] U.S. government workers strike back

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[Viewpoint] U.S. government workers strike back

Europeans have grown accustomed to seeing government workers shut down their countries when provoked. At this time of huge deficits from Washington to the smallest towns, government workers in the U.S. also face significant cutbacks.

Americans may have had their first taste of what that will mean.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Governor David Paterson are both calling for an investigation of allegations that city workers intentionally dragged out the cleanup of the Dec. 26 blizzard as a way to protest cuts in the city budget. The New York Post, citing city Councilman Dan Halloran, reported that some snow-plow drivers skipped streets on their routes or kept their plows too high to clear streets.

In October, the Bloomberg administration said it would eliminate 200 supervisory positions in the Sanitation Department and hire 100 entry-level workers to lower salary, benefit and overtime costs by about $20 million, part of an effort to close a $3.3 billion deficit in the 2011 budget. The mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.

If city workers did undermine the slow-clearing effort to protest budget cuts, they may have contributed to the death of a baby girl in Brooklyn, who waited with her 22-year-old mother nine hours for emergency crews to fight their way through the snow-covered streets. A Queens woman watched her elderly mother die as she waited three hours for an ambulance to arrive.

Americans better get used to this treatment.

At the federal level, the Congressional Budget Office forecasts that 23 percent spending cuts or tax increases are required just to stabilize debt levels. Democrats and Republicans agree that budget change is desperately needed, and that will inevitably go after government salaries.

Throughout history, successful fiscal consolidations by highly indebted governments have generally gotten about 22 percent of their deficit reduction from wages and salaries, according to recent research I did with two colleagues at American Enterprise Institute, Andrew Biggs and Matt Jensen.

Democrats, who rely heavily on public employee unions for campaign financing, can generally be counted on to oppose attempts to reign in government pay. But now even President Barack Obama seems to realize the gravity of the problem. In freezing the wages of most civilian federal workers for two years, he said, “The hard truth is that getting this deficit under control is going to require some broad sacrifice, and that sacrifice must be shared by employees of the federal government.”

Will federal employees agreeably make the sacrifices necessary for our country?

In Europe, where public-sector strikes and rioting are not uncommon, widespread budget cuts in 2010 provoked both. French government employees held day-long strikes in March and September, disrupting transportation across the country. A strike held by Spanish air traffic controllers in December cost the country’s tourism industry more than $500 million. Greece endured strikes, protests and riots by mail, transport, school, power, bank and hospital workers.

The good news is it’s unthinkable that such a scenario could occur in the U.S. The difference between American and European civil servants rests mainly in the labor laws that bind them. European laws tend to treat public-sector strikes less harshly than U.S. law.

In France, even workers for the critical public transportation sector can strike if they provide 48 hours notice. As a result, the French strike often.

In the U.S., the Taft-Hartley Act prohibits strikes or lockouts that could create a national emergency. It was most famously invoked by President Ronald Reagan against air-traffic controllers, and most recently, in 2002, was used by President George W. Bush to end an employer lockout of longshoremen that had shut down 29 West Coast ports.

Some municipal laws further curtail the ability of public-sector workers to strike. In New York City, for example, the Taylor Law prevents public-sector work stoppages.

So, if conflict is coming, what might it look like? While government workers in the U.S. will have a hard time initiating strikes, they will be able to take work actions that in the private sector would lead to immediate dismissal. It’s almost impossible to fire a government employee no matter how poorly they perform their job.

“Sleeping on duty, threatening co-workers, falsifying documents, rudeness, sexual harassment and poor performance would get you fired from most jobs,” according to a recent analysis of personnel cases in Arizona state agencies and the city of Phoenix. “But often that’s not the case for a government worker.”

Some examples cited in the study were stunning. In one case, it took three years from the time of his arrest to complete the firing of serial killer Dale Hausner from his city job as a custodian at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix.

Even if the accusations of a work slowdown are accurate, it’s unlikely anyone will lose their job in the New York City snow debacle. The same will be true around the country. Government workers can be ineffective and unproductive with impunity.

So, here’s one vision for 2011 in the U.S.: subways slower, lines at airports longer, trash and snow piling up in the streets, visas and other government documents processed less quickly. But no Europe-style riots in the streets - unless fed-up taxpayers are the ones who start them.

*The writer is the director of economic-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a Bloomberg News columnist.

By Kevin Hassett
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