Cops vs Teachers: Who's Worth More in Tight Times?

VIDEO: The call to shrink the state deficit is complicated by those who fear losing out.
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Are some public-sector workers more equal than others?

Are cops and firemen more deserving of public money, say, than file clerks? Than prison guards? Than librarians or hospital orderlies? With an ever-smaller pie of money available for public salaries and pensions, shouldn't first responders get first dibs?

The general public, some elected officials—and more than a few cops and firefighters—seem to think so.

As the war over public sector workers' rights and perquisites spreads from Wisconsin into Ohio, Tennessee, California and other states, public opinion favors firefighters most.

A Harris Poll conducted in July of 2009 asked which of 23 vocations people respected most. Firefighters ranked #1, and by a big margin, coming out ahead of nurses, teachers, union leaders and even cops.

Deputy Chief Jim Riches, retired from the New York City Fire Department and a veteran of the 9/11 twin towers attack says workers who risk their lives belong in a separate category.

"I think that should be taken into consideration," he says. Teachers, he allows, are important, too—but there's a difference: they aren't exposed to the dangers and horrors first responders have to face. After the twin towers fell, Riches led the search and recover of bodies and body parts. "We picked up 25,000 body parts," he says. He his men exposed themselves not only to that horror but to toxic materials and dust. Some of them later suffered for it. "We were told the air quality was fine," he says. He went into a coma.

"Education is valuable, absolutely yes," he says. "You cannot do without it. But take away too many firefighters and police, and you'll have more fires where people get killed. Crime will go up." When government has to make the hard choice how to distribute limited resources, he thinks, "There's no question you have to weigh those issues."

What's gone on in Wisconsin—and in the growing list of other states where governors, desperate to balance budgets, have sought to wrest pay and pension concessions away from public workers—Riches calls "totally wrong." The attempt to limit public workers' collective bargaining power he calls "disgraceful." But insofar as times truly are tough and state governments genuinely are strapped for cash, it's not unfair, he thinks, to distinguish between categories of public workers.

Chuck Canterbury, head of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest police union, believes the public puts guardians of public safety in a different category. Voters, he says, "still favor collective bargaining for public safety"—meaning by firemen and cops--and by a wide margin. Should they have first claim at pay in a time of shortage? "I think so, yes."

Wisconsin's Gov. Scott Walker, he notes, expressly exempted firemen and cops from his budget-balancing bill, leaving their pay and benefits intact. "Even the governor recognizes public safety is a different animal," says Canterbury. He stops short, however, of suggesting that other unions besides firemen and cops aren't deserving. "We stand shoulder to shoulder with them," he says. "It won't help the education of our children if we dismantle teachers' right to collective bargaining."

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