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The new class warfare: Private vs. public worker

Class warfare in America used to mean rich versus poor.

Now, that age-old social conflict is taking a back seat to a new one: private sector versus public sector.

Many private-sector workers have long considered it their civic duty to question how the public sector spends their tax dollars, of course. But nothing could have prepared them for the Los Angeles Times’ revelations last month of the absurdly monstrous salaries of Bell city officials.

If we’ve reached the tipping point in the political battle nationwide to rein-in pay and benefits for public-sector workers, credit Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo, the $800,000-a-year man.

To be sure, pressure to restrict public-sector compensation has been building for years. Millions of private-sector workers have seen their benefits slashed by corporate America while many state and local governments have gotten more generous with their own workers -- at taxpayers’ expense.

Bellprotest Over the last decade, politicians (like the late Keith Richman in California) who sought to reform public-sector benefits, particularly pensions, argued that promises made to government workers in economic boom times no longer were affordable. But the urgency was lacking.

That has changed with the budget crises faced by municipalities across the nation since the economy plunged in 2008 -- and with soaring unemployment in the private sector.

My colleague David Zahniser noted in a story Tuesday that the city of L.A. is projecting that retirement-benefit costs for its workers will rise by $800 million over the next five years. By 2015 those expenses for current and future retirees could eat up nearly one-third of the city’s general fund.

Union officials and other worker advocates understandably fear that public-sector employees will be unfairly victimized. Most, after all, don’t get rich in their jobs.

"I highly recommend that we go very slow on this issue," Peter Repovich, director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents rank-and-file officers, told Zahniser. "It seems there's a lot of group-think going on across the state and the nation" on the issue.

And as the Times' George Skelton has noted, it isn't as if state workers in California haven't already given something back. Mandated furloughs over the last year have meant a 14% pay cut for many.

But those who are pushing reform -- i.e., benefit cuts -- naturally see an opportunity to galvanize voter sentiment, as Reuters’ Jim Christie notes in this piece. The surge in news stories detailing public-sector benefits has left many private-sector workers with “pension envy,” as Christie puts its.

There’s more than just pension envy going on: Given the sad state of the job market, the economy has obliterated the old image of public-sector positions as lowly employment that most Americans wouldn’t want. Today, who wouldn’t want the relative job security of working for the DMV?

As for business owners and executives, joining the battle to cut public-sector benefits is a no-brainer.

Writing in the Los Angeles Business Journal this week, Howard Fine finds L.A. business leaders “increasingly alarmed about skyrocketing public-sector pension costs,” and fearful that they will face higher taxes or fees to maintain those benefits.

And something else: Hilda Sanchez, owner of Minuteman Press in Long Beach, told Fine, “When my employees read about the benefits that Long Beach city employees get, they realize they don’t have anywhere near those kinds of benefits. It affects their morale.”

There is the motivating force of true class warfare: If I can’t have this, why should you?

-- Tom Petruno

Photo: The scene at a City Council meeting in Bell last month, as residents protested city officials' mammoth salaries. Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

 
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