Government Service: Is the Pig Really So Fat?

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In times of economic stress, government employees are heavily scrutinized, just as many people in the private sector are. But sacrificing a person’s job on a bean-counters’ altar should be the course of last resort, not the first, and not based on the fact employees belong to a union. However, as the scrutiny goes up, so do many of the famous myths of the “easy” life as a government employee.

Many believe unions bear the bulk of the problem regardless of the fact that some employees can’t strike. A union without the prospect of a strike, is pretty toothless. I believe I can speak with some authority on the issue because I was once a federal worker.

In my unionized shop, pay rates weren’t set by collective bargaining. The feds set them by comparisons with “equal” private sector jobs. I was a fully licensed aircraft mechanic. I rebuilt state of the art Navy F-14 fighters, engines, and components. My “equivalents” were unlicensed, low-skilled, and low-compensation floor workers at a local Mrs. Smith pie bakery. At the time, salaries for private sector aircraft mechanics were about 3X what the Apple Dumpling Gang got.

And fabulous benefits? Boy howdy! New workers received 1 week of vacation at the end of their first year. If illness or family emergencies left you short of time for the mandatory “vacation”,  you paid for the time you “wasted”.

In the Shallow End of the Social Security Pool
At the time, there was a de rigueur defined benefit pension similar to the private sector’s. During a hiatus in my government service, the pensions died and replaced by Social Security without benefit of a 401k style plan. Although I was grandfathered under the old pension system, the government required me to pay the equivalent amount of Social Security paid during my hiatus. Fair enough, but they’d only take a lump-sum payment and if you couldn’t pay that you went straight to the shallow end of the Social Security pool.

Health insurance? Proportionally, I paid far more for roughly equal insurance than I do today. So much in fact, I had enter the private sector when I got married because we couldn’t afford the insurance on a pie maker’s salary.

But perhaps the biggest issue was the work conditions. And even there, the union didn’t hold much sway. Employees were routinely subjected to treatment that would’ve guaranteed strikes, or big lawsuits, in the private sector.

For example, management removed doors from toilet stalls so they could see anyone with an unusual number of bouts with the squitters. In some shops, employees had to raise their hands and ask permission to take a dump like a third grader. Managers also attached magnets to bits of string and randomly tossed them onto people’s shoes to make sure they were steel-toed. But the last indignity was downright dangerous working conditions.

I worked mandatory 10-12 hour shifts, including many Saturdays, for months on end. My shop was a non-air conditioned, poorly ventilated room with outside temperatures running in the upper 90s and live steam pipes running under the floor. The average summertime temperature in the room averaged about 120 degrees. The government’s method for stemming the number of heat-related injuries was to offer salt pills served in open buckets.

We also inhaled atomized heptane and Freon. We were protected from the heptane only by an unsealed plastic baggy over the equipment and our skin with nothing at all (including gloves). Although told we needed no safety equipment, hazmat workers pumped out the waste tanks wearing full protective gear and oxygen masks (not simply respirators).

In the end, the union had no real effect on pay or any of these bizarre workplace rules.

American Jobs Fly Away
Eventually, I left government for the private sector. It was a good thing too. All but one of the Navy’s similar facilities closed shortly after I left and the work turned over to private companies. Oh, and maintenance for those F-14s? Much of it went off shore, leaving a potential wartime capability gap while exposing high-tech airplanes to easier espionage attempts. The decision lost tens of thousands of American jobs too. And unions? They couldn’t do a thing about it.

Yes, my government service was long ago. I’m sure much has changed, but the union wasn’t the sole problem then and it’s not the whole problem now. It’s a mistake to think every government worker lives in the lap of luxury or that mean unions harass and stymie the government at every turn.

Government workers are like workers in the private sector. They work hard. They sometimes put up with squalid work conditions and bad management.  They find themselves increasingly ill-equipped to live the middle class American dream, because the dream costs money. They understandably want to keep theirs – just as non-unionized workers aren’t flocking to front offices to voluntarily sacrifice their jobs to a CEO with bulging pockets who screws not only the taxpayers, but the workers as well.

I approve of examining spending cuts – clearly we need some. But, I’d also ask that the examination not be run by those with far better compensation and agendas far beyond rational budget cutting. I want a fair assessment, built on truth and honesty, by people who don’t have unreasonable demands and minds made up before they even look at things. I expect unions to recognize the challenges of deficit spending too. And if we need layoffs, we shouldn’t carry them out with a crude butcher knife in place of a good, sharp scalpel.

To do otherwise isn’t good for workers or the country.

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