Last week’s blizzard in the Eastern U.S. made numerous headlines, but most especially for the untimely cleanup response in New York City. However, instead of focusing on the real controversy, the media as usual zeroed in on the action (or inaction) of one man, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who finally admitted that his city employees did an “inadequate” job. Given that two people died at least in part because the roads did not permit emergency personnel to reach them, the term “inadequate” is probably not adequate to describe the nature of the post-blizzard response. Especially if, as is being rumored, there was a deliberate attempt on the part of union employees to provide a slower-than-usual response due to their unhappiness with a recently announced layoff of a few hundred workers.
These rumors need to be fully investigated, not just by the city but by the media, to determine whether there is any truth to them. If so, there needs to be consequences for those involved in any deliberate “slow-down.”
After some admittedly “quick and dirty” research regarding the salaries of sanitation workers (the closest occupation to snow removal that could be found), it appears that many workers in NYC are making at least 50 percent more than the national average (roughly $67,000 annually versus the national average of $45,000). However, this may be conservative on the low side considering that (1) the NYC workers may make considerably more than the $67,000 depending on how much overtime they work, and (2) the “national average” was the high side of the range that went from $23,000 to $45,000. In any case, NYC workers are obviously well-paid for what they do—too well-paid to have performed so poorly and untimely during the recent storm. This is where the focus of the public’s anger should be. If they want to cast blame on leaders like Bloomberg and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (who was on vacation in a more favorable climate during and after the storm), that’s fine—but the reasons for the anger should include the mayor’s or governor’s failure to call out the unions once it became apparent that their response was not meeting the needs of the public.
Public employee unions, with their generous salaries, benefits and pension plans, and their almost guaranteed jobs, are making it very difficult for big cities and states traditionally run by Democrats to balance their budgets. They are also proving the old adage that a benefit, once given, is extremely difficult to take away. The unions, their voting members and large contributions mostly to Democrat candidates represent a powerful bloc that the Democrats in particular can ill afford to alienate. Yet it’s apparent that for states and cities that are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, something has to give—and the public employee unions, as reluctant as they may be to do so, may have to share in the sacrifices that are necessary for financial survival. This may be one of the big issues for 2011 and beyond, and a significant measure of future political leadership is how much courage is shown in standing up to this very expensive special interest group.