Government wage freeze — a bad idea

Yesterday President Obama announced his proposal for a two year wage freeze for all non-military government workers.  Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, nailed it when he said, “No one is served by our government participating in a ‘race to the bottom’ in wages. We need to invest in creating jobs, not undermining the ones we have.”

There are a number of reasons the proposal is a terrible idea, but two stand out in my mind. First is the one that Trumka points to: It is bad for the economy.

Even if it’s a bargaining ploy for dealing with the Republican obstructionists (or should I say destructionists) it will cause real harm to the economy. The tea party Republican mantra is cut social programs. This proposal feeds right into that idea. Cutting spending on wages and on programs is a prescription for economic disaster. It means less money in circulation, which means less demand, which means more layoffs and unemployment.

This idea feeds right into the notion that cuts and short-term deficit reduction will grow the economy. That sure isn’t working too well in Europe. It also highlights the incredible hypocrisy of the far right Republicans who want to cut benefits for millions of the unemployed, while claiming that tax cuts for the super rich will benefit the economy.

This while Big Business America is sitting on several trillion dollars, instead of investing in job creation and building the things the country needs – like green energy and green manufacturing, health care, infrastructure and education. All programs that would put millions back to work and save the economy.

But I think there is another important reason that a federal wage freeze is dangerous. It also feeds into racist, anti-worker stereotypes of the “lazy” public worker.

This was the real meaning of the ultra-right’s hullabaloo attack on airport screeners. I don’t love the pat down or scanning stuff, as a travel nuisance. But hey, the TSA workers didn’t make the policy.

Yes, there are some federal workers who make really big salaries. The far right’s stereotype of public workers ignores the reality that the vast majority of federal employees make modest to meager wages. Custodial and hospital workers at the Veterans Administration that make in the $20,000 to $30,000 range are more the norm.

More than that, the overwhelming majority of federal workers provide important services that help people and keep the economy and our country going. Further the savings from a federal wage freeze wouldn’t make even a tiny dent in the deficit.

It’s not clear to me if members of Congress and Senators are included in the freeze. If they are, we can expect some more self-righteous crying and posturing like we heard from freshman Republicans. They sure were bitter about having to wait a month for their government health care.

Another troubling aspect of the proposed freeze is the question of whether it will violate existing union contracts. It’s hard to imagine that it doesn’t clash with scheduled pay raises and cost of living provisions. In which case, the proposal sets up a labor struggle between a pro-labor president and the unions. This would be a set back for the coalition that is needed to stop the Republican right-wing destruction machine.

This kind of disunity can hurt the progressive movement and make it easier for the far right to further shift the crisis on to the backs of the working class.

Photo: Pepe Lozano/PW



Scott Marshall
Scott Marshall

Scott has been a life long trade unionist and was active in rank and file reform movements in the Teamsters, Machinists and Steelworkers unions in the 1970s and '80s. He was co-chair of the Save Our Jobs committee of USWA local 1834 at Pullman Standard in Chicago and active in nationwide organizing against plant shutdowns and layoffs. He was a founder of the unemployed organization Jobs or Income Now (Join), in Chicago, and the National Congress of Unemployed Organizations in the 1980s. Scott remains active in SOAR (Steelworkers Active Organized Retirees). He lives in Chicago.