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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
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
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
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
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
“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
Kevin A. Hassett is a senior fellow and director of economic policy studies at AEI.
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