In recent weeks, Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois has traveled the state promoting his proposal for more than $2 billion in cuts to pensions for public employees. All public employees, that is, except police officers and firefighters.
“Those who put their lives on the line in service to our state deserve to be treated differently,” Mr. Rauner said in his February budget address to the state legislature.
By announcing the exemption, Mr. Rauner was following the lead of other Republican governors in the Midwest who have imposed unwelcome changes on state and local employees in the name of saving money and improving services.
In 2011, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin introduced a bill that would roll back collective bargaining rights for government workers and require them to contribute more toward their own pensions and health coverage. He excluded police officers and firefighters from the legislation, known as Act 10, which he signed the following month.
In 2012, Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan signed a right-to-work bill, eliminating the requirement that private and public sector workers contribute dues to the unions that represent them, whether or not they are members. The bill included a “carve-out” for police officers and firefighters, which Mr. Snyder supported.
Logging workers had the highest likelihood of being killed on the job in 2013. Police officers and firefighters fell somewhere in the middle, in terms of job fatalities.
All these exemptions and carve-outs have a popular appeal. Who, after all, would deny the heroism of police officers and firefighters? The hitch, labor experts contend, is that the exemptions lack any substantive merit.
“When you get into structural differences, you’re hard pressed to see why anyone would argue that one group should be left out,” said Robert Bruno, a professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois. “This has to have more to do with the fact that it’s politically dangerous to attack these people.”
While no one would dismiss the risks that police officers and firefighters face daily, they are not the only public employees whose work is dangerous. Statistically, at least, there are far more dangerous public sector jobs.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on-the-job fatalities occur at a significantly higher rate for “refuse and recyclable material collectors” — sanitation workers — than for police officers. The same is true for power line installers and truck drivers. And fatality rates for these workers exceed those for firefighters by a considerable margin, though firefighters have serious health complications like cancer at relatively high rates in retirement.
But even granting that police officers and firefighters have a special claim on the public’s conscience, it is not clear why the most effective way to honor that claim is through more generous pensions. It might make far more sense to rein in their pensions while raising their salaries, said David Lewin, a professor of management at the University of California, Los Angeles.
For one thing, police officers and firefighters can retire with full pensions at younger ages than other state employees (beginning at age 50 in Illinois, often younger in other states). That means they frequently spend many more years drawing their pension benefits, even while receiving full-time salaries in the private sector. This drives up long-term costs for municipalities and states.
The early retirement policies also deplete police and fire departments of critical employees at precisely the time when they are most valuable.
“Why stay with a 130-year-old pension arrangement that came in when we thought police and firefighter work was all brawn, no brain?” said Professor Lewin. “That forces folks out just when they’re adding value and intellectual capital.”
But few politicians are challenging these longstanding privileges or asking police officers and firefighters to sacrifice along with other public employees.
In Wisconsin, for example, Mr. Walker and other Republicans argued that it was important to insulate police officers and firefighters because the state relies on them during emergencies and cannot afford unrest in their ranks. In Michigan, Mr. Snyder worried that extending right-to-work provisions to police officers and firefighters would hurt their cohesion.
That argument is hard to square, however, with statements by Republican legislators and governors like Mr. Snyder that their proposals would be a boon to employees — one that police officers and firefighters should presumably want to share in, not something they should want to avoid.
“This is all about taking care of the hard-working workers of Michigan, about being pro-worker, about giving them the freedom to choose who they associate with,” Mr. Snyder said when announcing his support for a right-to-work law in 2012.
Glenn Grothman, a Wisconsin Republican who as a state senator strongly backed Act 10 and now serves in Congress, said that by making it easier for supervisors to lay off state and municipal workers, the law had actually improved worker morale. “I’ve heard compliments from public employees that are happy they don’t have to work with underperforming employees,” he said.
“Those who put their lives on the line in service to our state deserve to be treated differently,” Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois said. Credit Seth Perlman/Associated Press
Similarly, Mr. Grothman said that the real purpose of Act 10 was “to improve the quality of education and other government services.” But if policing and firefighting are the most critical services local governments provide, the public would presumably be even more eager to improve them, not less.
James Macy, a labor lawyer who has represented dozens of municipalities in Wisconsin, said that smaller towns would be well served by pooling their police departments into larger units. He says he believes municipalities could improve the productivity of their fire departments by rethinking the traditional schedule of 24 hours on, followed by one or more days off.
But the existing arrangements are difficult to alter under the status quo. In the case of firefighter schedules, Mr. Macy said, “the only way to change that is through bargaining.”
“And firefighters like that, they protect that,” he said.
Some backers of right-to-work laws and curbs on collective bargaining for public employees say they should be applied without exception.
A spokesman for Daniel Knodl, a Republican state legislator in Wisconsin, said: “Representative Knodl’s position on the Act 10 provisions is that all public employees should be subject to the same provisions. This should include police and firefighters.”
In Michigan, Gary Glenn, a freshman Republican state representative, has drafted legislation that would extend the right-to-work provisions to these employees as well.
But for all its consistency, many Republican leaders are reluctant to go along with that view. For governors like Mr. Walker, Mr. Rauner and Mr. Snyder, political considerations appear to trump everything else.
Co-opting public safety employees divides and weakens labor unions, according to Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
“Clearly part of what these governors are doing by treating cops and firefighters differently is driving a wedge in labor,” Mr. Schaitberger said.
Police officers and firefighters, Professor Bruno pointed out, are also much more likely than other public employees to be white and male — precisely the demographics from which Republicans draw their electoral strength.
One of the few governors who did not exempt public safety employees from limits on their bargaining rights, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, saw his efforts undone by voters in a referendum within eight months.
While some anti-union measures, like right-to-work laws, poll well, the success of many others appears to depend less on their underlying popularity than on the unpopularity of the groups they target.
“People are happy to see us come to their door,” Mr. Schaitberger said. “That gives us a face, a voice, an ability to not only push a narrative, but to advance an agenda.”