In case you were wondering, some of Maui’s richest and most powerful landowners and developers had lunch together on the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 24. Peter Martin, Charlie Jencks, Everett Dowling–they were all there at the Maui Country Club in Spreckelsville, eating turkey and ham sandwiches with green salad and listening with rapt attention to one of my former editors denounce public employee salaries and pensions.
Flown out by the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, writer and columnist Steven Greenhut gave the few dozen people in the room a lunch they’ll remember.
“County public employees in the state of Hawaii make among the highest wages in the nation, even after adjusted for Hawaii’s high cost of living,” stated the notice announcing the talk. “Steven Greenhut is the author of Plunder! How public employee unions are raiding treasuries, controlling our lives and bankrupting the nation. He will open the books on police and fire departments across the country, and show that the problems of pension spiking, overtime, and Cadillac benefits are also happening in Hawaii.”
Greenhut is the Western Region Director for the R Street Institute, a columnist for the Orange County Register and a true libertarian. In 2010, he was editor of CalWatchdog, a nonprofit journalism project in Sacramento where I worked as an investigative reporter. He opposes public employee unions, big public pensions, eminent domain (which he also wrote a book about), civil asset forfeiture, the drug war, militarized law enforcement and interventionist wars of all types, shapes and sizes.
At the Maui Country Club, he mostly spoke about California’s experience with public employee pensions and benefits (a subject he’s written about for some years) but did sprinkle a few items in about Hawaii. Unlike Republicans, who freely denounce unions that represent workers in education, healthcare and the service industry but give fire and police whatever their unions ask for, libertarians like Greenhut go after all organized labor.
“I love public employees,” Greenhut said at the start of his talk. “But it’s a question of balance, affordability and fairness.”
In terms of average salaries, it’s important to remember that all public employees aren’t created equal. At the top of the pyramid sit firefighters and police officers. According to Keli‘i Akina, Ph.D–the president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute, who introduced Greenhut–the average firefighter salary in Maui County is $85,000/year, while the average Maui Police officer salary tops $72,000/year. These number stand in stark contrast to the average Maui County public employee salary, which is $46,000/year (to say nothing of the average private sector salary in Maui County, which is a mere $35,000/year). These numbers attest to the power of organized labor for fire and law enforcement–easily the most powerful unions in a state that’s already more than friendly to organized labor.
“We can’t reform anything because of union power,” Greenhut told the crowd. “Unions also make it impossible to get rid of bad actors.”
To the delight of the crowd, Greenhut also told a favorite story of mine. Years ago, Greenhut had written a column denouncing firefighters for getting paid “to sleep” on the job. Soon after, a fire union official called up Greenhut and demanded a correction, saying firefighters were paid “while sleeping,” not “to sleep.” Greenhut said he happily complied.
Photo of Steven Greenhut courtesy Grassroot Institute