Attacks on Public Sector Workers Hurt Working People and Benefit the Rich

Stephen Herzenberg |

Republican lawmakers in the Pennsylvania House and Senate continue to promote bills that would reduce the power of public sector unions by undercutting them financially. These bills would make it harder or illegal to collect some current contributions to unions (e.g., from non-members who enjoy higher wages and benefits and workplace representation from public sector unions).

While proponents say these proposals would benefit taxpayers and private sector workers, in reality weakening public-sector unions hurts middle-class taxpayers and workers in both the private sector and the public sector. One reason for this is that public sector unions are vital advocates for public policies that benefit the middle class as a whole, such as raising the minimum wage, protecting Social Security, or fighting for more affordable and accessible health care.

Now we have some fresh evidence that attacks on public sector workers hurt working people and benefit the wealthy — from Wisconsin. As documented by Gordon Lafer, after weakening public sector workers, Wisconsin lawmakers enacted $2 billion worth of tax cuts in 2011-14, paid for by the layoffs and wage and benefit cuts of public employees. Lafer shows that the benefits of these tax cuts skewed dramatically to the rich. The top 1 percent enjoyed an average tax cut of $2,500 per year, over 20 times the $118 cut for the bottom 60 percent of taxpayers.

Republican champions of bills that would weaken unions clearly hope to make Pennsylvania “the next Wisconsin” in the next several years. Pennsylvania has already cut taxes so much for the wealthy over the past 15 years — as a result of over $3 billion in corporate tax cuts. Those cuts exacerbated the blatant unfairness in Pennsylvania’s upside-down tax system, which requires middle-income families to pay 10.1% of their income in state-and-local taxes, low-income families to pay 12%, and the top 1% to pay only 4.4%.

In Pennsylvania, the immediate tax issue before us is raising revenue — revenue needed to cover the current costs of education and essential services and to address the state’s investment deficit. The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center has advanced a creative proposal that would raise $2 billion in revenue. This Fair Share Tax would cut taxes for nearly six in 10 Pennsylvanians, while raising half the new funds from the top 1% and 88% from the top fifth.

Public sector unions will play a critical role in any successful effort to achieve fairer taxes in Pennsylvania that especially benefit moderate income families concentrated in rural areas and some urban neighborhoods. Those same taxpayers would also benefit disproportionately from the education and other services funded by additional revenue.

So when advocates for laws that would weaken public sector unions tell you that this would benefit most taxpayers and the middle class, don’t believe them. If you care about a fair tax system, a higher minimum wage, quality public school for all, accessible and affordable higher education, health care for the middle class, services for the vulnerable — most government investments that help Pennsylvania thrive and make it more humane — the fight to protect the strength of public sector unions is your fight. If we do follow the lead of Wisconsin in the next several years, it will not be pretty…except for very rich people happy to live in insulated communities unaffected by how others in the state are doing.