Hudson: How public servants came to be viewed as coddled bureaucrats

Author: Miller Hudson - January 17, 2017 - Updated: January 18, 2017

Miller Hudson
Miller Hudson

I was discharged from the U.S. Navy in July of 1970. After picking up a new Toyota Land Cruiser for $4,100 (a deal made possible through a purchase program available only to returning troops), my wife and I drove coast to coast with our two month old son, Byron, in a crib that slid neatly between the two lengthwise bench seats in the back of the Cruiser. We spent a month visiting relatives and touring national parks. It was the kind of vacation you only attempt when you are young and slightly stupid. Fortunately, Byron was the kind of baby that lures you into having another — quiet, rarely crying and willing to sleep through the night in a tent and strange motels.

It was at Jenny Lake in Teton National Park that I first encountered the mechanized, American family expedition. A large GMC pickup with a camper shell, a motorbike hanging in a rack on the front bumper, a fishing boat with Evinrude motor secured upside down on top of the camper and towing a small Jeep, pulled in next to us with four squealing kids. It had only been a decade since John Steinbeck had written “Travels with Charley in Search of America,” which introduced the notion of the motorized camper. The sheer muscular horsepower of this adventure gear blew me away. Upon inquiry, I learned the proud owner was an assembly line worker at GMC, who had used union connections to acquire his armada of equipment for less than $30,000. Neither of us recognized we were experiencing the zenith of middle class luxury, nor that my Toyota was a portent of challenges to come.

This was the American dream as excess. Although revisionists still try to convince us it was exclusively greedy labor unions that undermined the American auto industry, it pays to revisit David Halberstam’s “The Reckoning” in order to remind ourselves there was plenty of blame to go around, including within the boardrooms of Detroit. Halberstam’s contrast of Ford with Nissan was perhaps the first in-depth analysis of the economic shocks a global economy held in store for American workers. Certainly it was the most prescient. As American industry expanded to dominate the post- World War II economy around the globe, it was easy for management to share its profits with workers. It was only as the pie began to shrink under competitive assaults that it became acceptable to slash benefits, curtail pensions and, finally, break up unions and cut workers’ wages. The market gods demanded it. The notion that every employee deserves a comfortable lifestyle, followed by a dignified retirement, withered beneath the arctic vortex of shareholder value.

During the salad days of the 50s and 60s, civil service protections and public sector benefits expanded with legislative support designed to establish government as a model employer. Teachers, firemen, and cops usually negotiated the best deals, but even bus drivers, social workers, snowplow drivers and motor vehicle clerks were rewarded. Yet, as private sector employees found themselves surrendering compensation and benefits, their public sector counterparts began to appear comparatively privileged.

It was in 2004 that I accepted the job of running the Colorado Association of Public Employees (CAPE), whose members found themselves under constant attack for their insulation from layoffs, generous benefits and guaranteed pensions. In a generation past, these arrangements would have been viewed as fundamentally fair. Historically public employees generally accepted reduced salaries, when compared with the private marketplace, in exchange for assured retirement plans. They rarely enjoyed bonuses, profit sharing or stock options, which are far more common in the private sector.

Since the dot-com crash at the turn of the century, state employee salaries have essentially been frozen. While there have been a handful of raises, they never equaled simple wage inflation. The revenue challenges facing our governors and legislatures have caused the gap between prevailing private sector wages and those of state workers to grow to nearly 20 percent today. Nonetheless, complaints about the privileged character of their treatment continue unmoored by facts. This is not just a partisan pattern. Late in Gov. Bill Owens’s tenure, I recall a conversation in which I was advocating a full funding of the salary survey. I posed the question, “Bill, do you believe a state trooper should earn enough to send his or her children to a state college or university?” He responded as though I was asking him a trick question. “This isn’t about the cost of tuition, it’s about the money we have available for salaries,” he responded. I pointed out that my question was a simple one. Should those individuals who are willing to risk their lives for the protection of each of us earn a living that permits them to provide higher education for their children? If your answer is yes, then spending priorities need to be re-evaluated.

A few years later, following voter approval of Referendum C, which relaxed TABOR spending limits, I sat in the office of Senate President Joan Fitzgerald. Both CAPE and its partner, SEIU, had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the successful ballot campaign. I again made the argument that it was time to fully fund the salary survey for the first time in nearly a decade. Fitzgerald responded that the “Ref C” campaign had spelled out particular expenditures that would be supported — transportation, education, etc. She then admonished me, saying, “We aren’t going to use this money to reward state workers, particularly in an election year. Maybe, next year.” I responded by noting that, “A Democrat who can’t justify paying state employees what Colorado law states they deserve in an election year won’t help them next year.” The following morning I received a call from Fitzgerald’s staff director informing me that I would no longer be welcome in her Senate offices.

Owens, a Republican, and Fitzgerald, a Democrat, were each serious and conscientious elected officials. Yet they could not place themselves in the shoes of the work force they expected to faithfully execute their programs. A lobbyist, earning in the low six figures, recently remarked to me that state workers should be required to fund their own 401ks, just like she does; oblivious to the fact that with an average annual income of $50,000 this might prove trickier than it does from her nearly quarter of a million dollar salary. A middle class that witnesses an economy that so often seems designed to funnel our commonwealth to a sliver of its contributors demonstrated it is justifiably angry — and angrily effective —this past November. Their patience as the state and nation makes policy under its new leadership is likely to prove short.

Miller Hudson

Miller Hudson

Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former state legislator. He can be reached at mnhwriter@msn.com.