Public employees underpaid? Evidence is thin

Recently the Mail Tribune published a guest editorial from Ken Allen, who is the director of AFSCME, one of the public employee unions representing Oregon workers. His apologia for public employee union influence in Oregon's financial issues simply doesn't ring true.

Mr. Allen wants to give us the impression that the unions have recognized the difficulties of the economy and have tempered their requests and are helping Oregon.

Allen then cites several studies/articles for the premise that union workers are actually underpaid in comparison with private sector workers. The "authorities" he cites are questionable at best, highly suspect, and laughable at worst.

Who does Allen rely on? First, news articles by The Oregonian and the Salem Statesman Journal. Not likely they did any real research, nor did anything but regurgitate other sources, mostly provided by the unions, and since both papers have a strong liberal bias, hardly the type of sources to provide a strong factual support for his thesis.

He cites "academic studies" — no names, places, times or sources. I suspect those come from state institutions, and do you really think they would be recommending cutting their own salaries, and finding themselves to be overpaid? Finally, he cites "a state report." Again, no name, place, time, research parameters, etc. Again, do we really think state employees compiling such a report are going to recommend they have pay or benefit cuts or admit they have benefits that far exceed those of the private sector?

His "research and sources" are essentially meaningless.

Next, Allen cites the PERS pickup payment negotiated with the state as being something people oppose without really understanding that union workers gave up other things to get that benefit. Now what that does is require state government to pay to PERS a 6 percent match of employee pay as a contribution to their PERS accounts. That is a huge cost for state government.

I would suggest that the entire typical union wage and benefit package to state government is far in excess of private sector compensation and excessive in the realities of this market and Oregon's deficits.

Harry & David is the largest employer in Southern Oregon. It employs thousands, and adds nearly 6,000 more during the holiday season. In the past two years, it has frozen wages, cut 401(k) matching funds, canceled its pension plan, cut employee hours, reduced benefit plans, cut the hours of many employees so they no longer qualify for benefits, laid off workers (sometimes with up to 40 years on the job), and even canceled the annual Christmas turkey gift.

Harry & David is the best of times in Southern Oregon. The worst of times is an unemployment figure somewhere between 15-20 percent. Jackson County is starting to look like a ghost town because so many small businesses have failed and there's no sign of change in the immediate future.

Lets compare that to Mr. Allen's state employees. Did they get raises without interruption ever since the recession began? Yes. Have their ranks increased despite the state's inability to sustain the employee costs it continues to undertake? Yes. Do state employees have full benefit packages with Cadillac health plans, vacation, sick leave, long- and short-term disability coverages? Yes. Do they have PERS, a retirement program so liberal that employees can sometimes retire with up to 107 percent of their gross highest pay rate per month? Yes.

So, lets put the real test up to Mr. Allen. How many of his underpaid union workers are willing to give up those poorly paid state jobs for the private sector? State and other government employees have not felt the pain of the recession. As it worsens and the state's coffers empty, higher taxes protect them as a sort of "super-class" citizen that government will spare the pain of reality.

If you want to see what an actual union contract provides for, you can go to the AFSCME website,, where they publish their completed contracts. Like hunters, they nail up the skins (contracts) of their kills (the employer) up on the wall for all to see.

This is simply not what is available in private enterprise, particularly in Southern Oregon. Most jobs are service jobs. Most pay near minimum wage. Raises are nonexistent. Benefits are few and far between. But this union boss wants us to believe that the union worker is undercompensated. You decide.

Raymond Smith of Central Point is a retired business attorney.

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