Politicians can be masters at using hot-button events to create a dialogue that suits the needs of the moment. Plans for a Ground Zero mosque became a discussion of religious freedom instead of a condemnation of unpardonably bad judgment. The Tucson, Arizona shootings led to partisan pleas to tone down political rhetoric as power in Washington shifted and the GOP took control of the House. The protests in Madison, Wisconsin, have spawned calls to protect the rights of public employees, and to hold them blameless for our economic strife.
President Obama made this remark to the National Governors Association:
I don’t think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified or their rights are infringed upon. 
The president is correct. Public employees should not be blamed for state budget woes. Very few are elected officials with legislative and budgetary authority. However, the president also made reference to employee rights, while claiming that public workers are not adequately compensated for their efforts:
We’re not going to attract the best teachers for our kids, for example, if they only make a fraction of what other professionals make. We’re not going to convince the bravest Americans to put their lives on the line as police officers or firefighters if we don’t properly reward that bravery. 
The time is ripe to resurrect the myth of the underpaid public worker. Nancy Pelosi released a statement that sounded like a leftover from the 1930s:
Wisconsin’s workers, teachers, and public servants must have a seat at the table to fight for good wages and a safe workplace. 
Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky adopted a similar stance, echoing the president’s remark about rights:
On top of that, Walker is going after these workers’ basic rights. He has proposed to gut fundamental American protections — the ability for individuals to organize, stand up for their rights, and engage in collective bargaining with their employers. It’s no wonder the people are coming out in droves to protest. 
Pelosi and Schakowsky come from states with horrific public employee pension deficits. Illinois’ shortfall led to a retroactive income tax hike that has peppered the state’s airwaves with invitations from other states to leave Illinois for more affordable pastures. Meanwhile, state officials acknowledge that the massive increase will not fix the budget problem.
There is a lot to gain from union and public employee support, so Democratic lawmakers at both federal and state levels are shifting the argument to one of rights and entitlements instead of fiscal necessity. 36.2% of public sector workers belong to a union, compared to only 6.9% of private sector workers,  so stumping for public employees draws attention from a tremendous support base. In the case of state legislators who approved over-generous benefits, drawing on public employee support deflects blame from their own irresponsible decisions.
The recession brought us private sector layoffs, and salary and benefit reductions over which most private sector workers had no control. The best many employees could hope for was a chance to keep their jobs at any level of pay. Legislators and unions argue that public employee rights supersede economic need, and that the coercion brought by collective bargaining is essential to guarantee those rights (see: Unions and Obama Hand Boehner a Gift). The argument will find little support among those living in states like Illinois who are forced to fund mandatory benefits with a tax increase.
No one is asking that public employees be treated unfairly, and they certainly do not deserve to be maligned. With the exception of state legislators, public employees do not approve their own pay and benefits, or the pay and benefits of others. However, public workers should not expect to be unfairly advantaged, and cannot expect that their generous benefits continue to be funded as a matter of right by states that are broke, and taxpayers who do not share the advantages of working for the public sector.
1..The White House. Office of the Press Secretary. Remarks by the President and the Vice President to the National Governors Association. February 28, 2011. http://www.whitehouse.gov.
3..Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi Remarks in Support of Wisconsin Public Workers. February 18, 2011. http://pelosi.house.gov.
4..Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. Schakowsky’s Statement on Wisconsin Protests over Workers’ Rights. February 17, 2011. http://schakowsky.house.gov.
5..United States Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Union Members – 2010. January 21, 2011. p. 1.