Over the weekend, the New York Times published a piece that follows a trend of vilifying public employees, in this case for their pensions. Being involved with California politics as I was, I can tell you that the wingnuts here find no greater joy than in demonizing state workers, all of which in their minds are greedy money-grubbers destroying the state from within. They have used this story about the city of Bell in the Los Angeles area, admittedly a story about thieves who ripped off their own citizens and the state pension fund, and spun it into a story about everyone who carries a government paycheck making $800,000 a year. They talk about police officers retiring at 50 with a “generous pension,” when that pension is on average $25,000 a year (when you eliminate Social Security, which most public employees don’t get). They talk about prison guards making “six-figure salaries,” and don’t tell you that includes overtime, because 30 years of right-wing “tough on crime” policies have led to massively overcrowded jails and beds in common areas like gyms or cafeterias, situations which require constant staffing by the guards.

In a way, people struggling in a down economy are searching for a reason why, and in public employees have found a convenient scapegoat. But Jonathan Cohn had a great piece about the real reason why this rankles the right – public employees have a balanced labor/management structure.

…conservatives are surely right when they say that unions and government accommodation of them are the main reason. Unions represent around 37 percent of public sector workers, compared to 7 percent of private sector workers. Note that one of the few exceptions to the public-private compensation differential seems to be unionized industrial laborers, like the auto workers–and that, during last year’s debate over what to do with the auto industry, we were having a very similar conversation about the relatively rich benefits that members of the United Auto Workers were getting.

But ask yourself the same question you should have been asking then: To what extent is the problem that the retirement benefits for unionized public sector workers have become too generous? And to what extent is the problem that retirement benefits for everybody else have become too stingy?

I would suggest it’s more the latter than the former. The promise of stable retirement–one not overly dependent on the ups and downs of the stock market–used to be part of the social contract. If you got an education and worked a steady job, then you got to live out the rest of your life comfortably. You might not be rich, but you wouldn’t be poor, either.

Unions, whatever their flaws, have delivered on that for their members. (In theory, retirement was supposed to rest on a “three-legged stool” of Social Security, pensions, and private benefits.) But unions have not been able to secure similar benefits for everybody else. That’s why the gap exists, although perhaps not for long.

Typically, public workers have deferred compensation increases in favor of long-term benefits. Their base salaries are smaller than what you can get in the private sector, while their benefit packages are larger. People want to pay for endless services with low taxes, so this is a way to keep public employees on the job under the current revenue stream, by pushing benefits out to the future. Small wonder that leads to a shaky long-term fiscal picture.

The point being, public workers have the small amount of leverage they have because they can collectively bargain. Other industries that have no such protections are getting screwed on a daily basis – but right-wing ideologues who want to extend that leverage for management across all businesses blame the greedy union bosses because they don’t want to see actual retirement security spread to the masses.