For months, the Quinn administration unsuccessfully tried to force the state’s largest employee union to accept wage cuts as part of its negotiations over a new labor agreement.

Not only were the governor’s efforts unsuccessful, but a new University of Illinois study shows government workers are a relative bargain compared with their private sector counterparts.

As 35,000 members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union vote this week on a new three year collective bargaining agreement with the state, the study appears to show they were right to hold out against Quinn’s push to cut their paychecks.

The study found that state and local government workers in Illinois earn incomes that are 13.5 percent less on average than workers in the private sector with a comparable education.

“When you control for education and other demographic variables, it turns out that public sector workers suffer a wage penalty,” says Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations on the Urbana campus. “So it’s a myth that state workers in Illinois are overpaid, and to lay the blame for the state’s budget woes and underfunded pensions on state workers is just plain false.”

Under terms of a tentative agreement inked last month between the Quinn administration and AFSCME’s bargaining team, prison guards, welfare workers and other employees will receive no raises in the first year of the pact and then 2 percent salary increases in each of the final two years of the deal.

Bruno and co-author Frank Manzo IV, a research associate, say they wanted to analyze the value of public sector workers to the state of Illinois by taking a more “holistic” look.

“We felt that what passes for public discussion around the cost of government in the state of Illinois has been partisan and not really data-driven or well informed,” said Bruno, also the director of the Labor Education Program in Chicago.

The study included state and local government workers, as well as public school teachers and state university employees.

Public sector workers account for a little more than 13 percent of the state’s total workforce but their effect on the actual economy turns out to be 16 percent of the state’s gross domestic product, the researchers say.

“So it turns out that state workers have quite the economic impact on the Illinois economy,” Manzo said. “That means if you were to cut state spending, which could lead to trimming the state workforce, you’re also by extension going to slow the Illinois economy.”

AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said the study shows state employees are not to blame for state government’s money troubles.

“The myth of the overpaid public employee is a phony political fiction,” Lindall said.

 

by Kurt Erickson, The Southern Illinoisan