DICK MEISTER FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
Let's pause for a moment to recognize some of our most important, yet most maligned workers. They are teachers and librarians. Police officers and firefighters. Bus drivers, doctors and nurses. Judges, lawyers, gardeners. They're laborers and other maintenance and construction workers, and many others who provide us vital services.
They are public employees. There are millions of them, who every day do the essential work that keeps our country going.
It is they who keep our streets and highways, our parks and playgrounds safe and clean, who collect our trash. It is they who help educate our children, who provide emergency health care, who convey us to our jobs and back home after our day's work, who sometimes risk their very lives to protect us from harm.
Yet despite all that - and more - public employees have come under heavy bipartisan attack by politicians who find them easy targets to blame for the budget shortfalls that have beset government at all levels. Labor costs, after all, make up the bulk of government spending everywhere.
There's no way around that basic fact. So if we want all those vital services public employees provide - and we do - that's the price we must pay, and should be happy to pay. Certainly no group of workers has done more for us, none who are more important to our welfare, none more deserving of their wages.
Yet we seriously shortchange many of those workers. And some people, including political leaders who obviously know better, ludicrously cite public employees as a major cause of the economic recession that just won't go away.
The blame, of course, clearly rests elsewhere. The culprits, as the Portside Labor website noted, include "the super-rich who will continue to enjoy immensely lucrative tax breaks enacted during the Bush administration," and the Defense Department officials who want "a budget blowing $78 billion over the next year to fund the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and maintain a military machine that spends more than all its rivals combined."
No, it's not obscenely wealthy tax-dodging greedheads or the war-happy folks at the so-called Defense Department who've caused record budget deficits. Oh, no. It's that "greedy public employee who pulls in an outrageous $19,000-a-year pension." You know, one of those public employees Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana actually characterized as members of "a new privileged class."
Public employee unions are striking back at such foolishness. For instance, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is waging a nationwide "Stop the Lies" campaign. Union President Gerald McEntee has been arguing that "hundreds of thousands of public employees, just like private sector employees, have been laid off, and taken pay and benefit cuts - even as Wall Street executives lined their pockets with taxpayer money and took home huge bonuses."
The union's retirees, meanwhile, are getting rich on pensions of, indeed, $19,000 a year.
There's this, too: Government workers generally get less in pay and benefits than workers holding similar jobs in the private sector. As Portside Labor and others have pointed out, public sector workers don't seem to resent the fact that their pay lags behind pay in private employment, "because most choose public service for other reasons than pay." That's obvious, and another reason to quit scapegoating the undercompensated workers who are among our most valuable.
The latest and perhaps best defense of the scapegoated public employees has come from President Harold Schaltberger of International Alliance of Firefighters .
Schaltberger notes the attacks on public employees are "like a tsunami rolling across the country." He says the attacks have never been greater, more serious or as vicious." As he says, "Wall Street's recklessness, not public employee pensions, caused our nation's financial collapse. Scapegoating workers won't solve anything."
In a full-page newspaper ad, Schaltberger noted that "Firefighters and paramedics are dedicated to the lives of our neighbors. Whether it's a natural disaster, terrorist attack or another tragedy, we answer the call. We understand that many Americans are hurting because of the recession, but we will not apologize for putting our lives on the line, the dangerous work we do, or the pensions we've earned."
Part of the reason for the strong attacks on public employee unions is that they have become the vanguard of the labor movement. They've been growing as unions in private employment have declined. Union membership overall dropped by about 600,000 last year, lowering the percentage of union members in private and public employment combined from just above12 percent to slightly below that figure. The percentage of public employees belonging to unions also shrunk slightly, but still stood at about 36 percent.
So, more than one-third of the country's public employees now belong to unions, but only about 7 percent of workers in private employment are unionized. Which explains why the country's anti-union forces are concentrating so heavily on public employees, and seeking to enlist broad public support for their anti-unionism by blaming public employees for our serious economic troubles.
Dick Meister is a San Francisco based columnist who has covered labor and politics for a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.