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

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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."

Should the fact that police and firemen risk death and injury be an important distinction at budget time? "Absolutely," thinks Canterbury. "The first responsibility of government is to protect its citizens. Politicians can't dodge that. Look at Camden New Jersey laying off 44 percent of its police department and then telling the public they're as safe as before. The audacity of that! No kindergarten kid believes that math."

Police and firemen's ace in the game of contract negotiations, he believes, is elected officials' justifiable fear that if they cut back too far on cops and firemen, the public will turn on them. "You're seeing that in Wisconsin already," he thinks.

It only makes sense, says Canterbury, that police and firemen should cooperate with one another and band together at the bargaining table. "We're in constant contact with the International Association of Fire Fighters," he says. "It's part of F.O.P. strategy. We're encouraging all our lodges to have open-ended discussions with the firefighters. Most have a very good working relationship."

Trying to cut costs by getting cops and firemen to postpone retirement he sees as a non-starter. The public, he says, understands that dangerous, physically demanding work can't be done by older workers. "People don't want to see a 65-year-old police officer dispatched to their home to handle a burglar. I'm 52. I don't want to have to go fight a 20-year old crack head."

As for government's cutting back on police and fire pensions: "Asking somebody to put his life on the line and then, after 40 years, telling him he has no pension? You can't do that. People won't risk their lives to do that." Recruiting efforts, he believes, would immediately suffer.