Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Governor's proposed pay hikes evince typical bureaucratic ignorance of how working people earn

Governor Dan McKee
(Kenneth C. Zirkel CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia)
Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee's proposal for huge increases to state administrators' pay, on the scale of revising $135,000 upward to $190,000, shows ignorance of how ordinary working people earn.

Our present condition of oppressive inflation has us all thinking a lot about pay. For ordinary working people in America, the only way to avoid an effective pay reduction over time is to change jobs. (Hat tip at my wife for putting words to that observation.) Employers demand "team" or "family" loyalty, 24/7 availability, and uncompensated overtime. But the loyal employee winds up being underpaid for overworking.

Raises don't keep up with inflation, if there are raises at all. In my own compulsorily union job, 2% raises are the contract standard. That rate tracks inflation for about the last 10 years, on average, but not for the preceding 10 years, when the union negotiated the rate, nor for the present year. The union admonishes that the university would give zero were it not for, of course, the union, so workers should be grateful for losing less badly. Then when the pandemic hit, the union asked for bigger pay cuts than the university proposed. So the union lost all credibility with me.

The "family" loyalty employers demand works only one way. At the first sign of hardship, jobs are cut; people in the lower ranks are disposable. Business cries out for relief form taxpayers, even as bottom lines bulge. Profiteering, not necessity, is pushing the present inflation, and there is no will in Washington for protection against price gouging. No wonder some workers are at last wising up to "quiet quitting," which is not quitting at all.

I make OK money, less than market rate for what I do, and less than I was promised since my employer, with union assent, reneged on an agreement, but a lot more than most Rhode Islanders. And I think I'm pretty good at what I do. You can't help but learn something with 25 years' experience.

Yet if I left my job, my employer would be pleased to replace me with someone lacking experience and paid two-thirds or less. Indeed, the norm in legal academia, in step with the private marketplace, is to prefer a 20-something lawyer out of a clerkship over a lateral candidate. At that, there would be young people lined up for my job, eager to be part of the "family," and understandably so in a market that has long forgotten what it means to negotiate terms of employment. I cannot move laterally even if I take the pay cut, because it's not just the discount price employers are after. They want a newly beholden member of the "family."

That's the reality for most American workers: employers expecting commitment and performance akin to indentured servitude from people who work cheap because they know they're easily replaceable for less.

So when I see pay raises of the kind that Governor McKee is proposing, supposedly for the purpose of recruitment and retention, I am outraged. In this New England market, there are plenty of bright, talented people right out of university, law and graduate school, some of them my former students, who are eager to test their skills in public leadership. The present $135,000 pay, double the average state salary, would be a dream offer.

That's not to say, of course, that I wouldn't rather see the market treat people fairly and reward talent and experience. I would rather that everyone in the workforce had pension security, not just public sector workers regardless of merit, willing to commit to one job and place for 20 years; that everyone had access to high-quality healthcare, not just people who let an employer walk all over them because they're afraid of dying from a recurred cancer if they change insurers; and that everyone would have the opportunity to earn a living wage in fewer than 40 hours per week.

But that's not our world. Well, not our country. So in the meantime, I don't care to see public-sector leaders privileged by terms of employment they are unable or unwilling to establish for the rest of us.

McKee's Republican opponent accused him of buying votes. I'm not sure that's true. There aren't enough state department heads to turn an election, and I doubt they have that much sway behind the curtain over the voters who work for them. 

I think it more likely that McKee has calculated that in the present political climate, his reelection as a Rhode Island Democrat is effectively a done deal. So he has the political capital to spend to shore up loyalty in an executive branch that he claimed this term by succession rather than election. (Independents such as me are barred from primary voting in Rhode Island, so I've had no say yet.)

Either way, raises for already well compensated state leaders will be an insult to taxpayers.

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