North Kingstown Employees Strike to Maintain Public-Sector Premium

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One question lost in the heat of this school year’s example of the annual opening-day labor dispute is: Why should school children pay more for janitorial services than anybody else would?  The practical answer is that parents are very sensitive to the treatment of their children, and that’s just one of the points of leverage that public-sector unions have.

According to the North East Independent, writing in July, janitors in North Kingstown used to make $19.47 per hour. Since the school committee voted to switch from the in-house union to the private GCA Services Group, while keeping the same workers, that hourly rate has fallen to $15.17. That’s a substantial drop of 22%, and it comes with greatly inferior benefits.  But in Rhode Island’s continuing jobs recession and apparent economic decline,  it isn’t clear that public-sector jobs, especially in schools, ought to be notably inviolable.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, last compiled in May 2011, shows the median hourly wage for “janitors and cleaners, except maids and housekeeping cleaners” in Rhode Island at $11.82. The average wage is $13.03, indicating that a small number of janitors make much more than that.  Despite the substantial cut, the North Kingstown crew is still among those high-wage outliers.

In this regard, the North Kingstown School Department is merely providing the latest example of a fact that the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity highlighted in January: public-sector unions drive labor costs well above the market rate. The Center cited a study by the Goldwater Institute finding that a ban on collective bargaining and contracts in the public sector could save the state $252 million.  Keep in mind that this total is state workers only.

Goldwater found that, overall, the nationwide premium that taxpayers pay for the workers under their employ is 44% over the private sector.  Before the North Kingstown School Committee’s action, this summer, the janitors on its payroll were well above even that.

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