Cost Cutting? Or War on Government Workers?

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Some experts say those numbers should be taken with caution because federal government workers are likely to be more skilled and higher-educated than their private-sector counterparts.

Battle Over Government Workers

The story on the state level, however, is different. Keefe's analysis, published by the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute, found that in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan -- where state workers' benefits are under scrutiny -- public-sector employees earn lower wages and receive less in total compensation, including benefits, than comparable private-sector workers.

Targeting public sector employees isn't a new phenomenon. There were similar outcries during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, but the severity of the crisis today far exceeds that of four decades ago.

"The current economic crisis is more severe than what happened in the mid-1970s," said Joseph McCartin, a labor historian and director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "Second, the public sector labor movement is more vulnerable today than it was then.

"Today, public sector workers are more easily scapegoated than was true 30 years ago."

With union presence in the private sector dwindling, much of their membership in many states comes from public-sector employees.

Union membership varies from state to state. It's higher in the Northeast and some Midwestern states, with virtually little or no presence in the South. Fewer federal government workers are part of unions, roughly 20 to 30 percent, Keefe said.

At the state level, the push to alter the way unions can bargain on behalf of their employees has been brewing for years.

In 2004, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels barred highway police, hospital attendants, mechanics and other state employees from collectively bargaining for pay and benefit increases. Similar measures are now being discussed in Wisconsin and Ohio.

On the national level, Boehner's "so be it" statement Tuesday may have come as a shock to some, but the rhetoric isn't new.

In September, the then-minority leader called taxpayer subsidies of federal jobs "nonsense."

"It's just nonsense to think that taxpayers are subsidizing the fattened salaries and pensions of federal bureaucrats who are out there right now making it harder to create private sector jobs," he said.

Republicans campaigned on the promise of cutting federal agency budgets and putting "Uncle Sam on a diet," in the words of now Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

ABC News' Alan Farnham contributed to this report.

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