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How to Keep America’s Public Workers Safe as We Emerge From the COVID-19 Lockdown

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When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Steve Scarpa began fishing antibacterial wipes, socks and even T-shirts out of the sewers in Groton, Connecticut.

Scarpa, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9411 and a member of the city’s wastewater treatment crew, said residents went into “mad hysteria cleaning mode” and simply flushed potentially contaminated objects down the toilet.

And so Scarpa and his co-workers risked COVID-19 themselves to remove items that kept jamming the sewer pumps crucial to the wastewater system’s operation.

While millions of Americans did their jobs remotely during the pandemic, public servants turned out in force every day to repair roads, collect trash, operate water systems and keep communities functioning.

They had America’s back. Now, the nation must have theirs as well.

Public workers will face additional exposure to COVID-19 as the lockdown ends and Americans return to government buildings, streets, parks and beaches in growing numbers.

Cities and counties have an obligation to provide personal protective equipment (PPE), enforce social distancing in public offices and implement other measures to protect road crews, water department personnel and code enforcement officers.

But it isn’t only the government’s responsibility to help public workers navigate the health risks that constitute the new normal.

Everyone has a role to play.

Residents can do their part by wearing masks when water department workers show up at the door to repair broken meters and by staying out of government buildings when they’re sick.

They can safeguard the health of crews repairing sidewalks, mowing parks and cleaning storm drains just by staying at least six feet away from work areas.

The public needs to pause and think about the people who perform these essential services—and about the impact careless actions have on them. It’s simply unacceptable for public workers to put themselves at risk because someone flushed a bulky item down a toilet.

“When they push the handle, no one really understands or cares what happens to it,” explained Scarpa, who believes people began flushing items because they feared leaving them inside the house until garbage day.

“We had to go and unplug pumps every day,” he said. “If you don’t unplug them, they’ll overheat, and they’ll burn out. And these things aren’t cheap.”

Public servants performed crucial roles during the pandemic. Many put in longer hours and took on additional responsibilities, such as tracking coronavirus cases or going door-to-door to warn citizens of COVID-19 hazards.

They paid a heavy price for keeping America’s cities and counties operating.

In New York alone, more than 100 transit workers died of COVID-19. Many other public servants have been infected nationwide.

Despite the risks they faced, these workers and their unions, including the USW, had to fight for commonsense safety measures.

Wanda Howard, president of USW Local 12160, battled the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority to provide PPE for frontline field representatives.

She demanded laptops for union members with health risks so they could do their jobs remotely. She argued for more sick leave so workers could stay home when they felt unwell instead of exposing others to illness on the job.

In recent months, field workers answered only emergency calls at customers’ homes. But as the lockdown ends, Howard worries that customers will deluge authority officials with routine service requests, increasing the chances that her members will encounter someone with COVID-19.

“People who want water service are not going to say they’re sick or somebody in the house is sick,” Howard explained. “They’re just not going to admit to that. My fear is that they’re going to open up appointments and want our servicemen to put themselves more in harm’s way.”

Already, she said, some customers greet union members at the door without masks. At one job site, a contractor helped himself to a worker’s wrench, even though COVID-19 can live on surfaces.

As local governments resume regular operations, it’s important for elected officials to stress the crucial work that public servants do and the collective effort needed to protect them.

That means insisting that customers report any illnesses in a home before crews arrive for service calls. It means demanding that homeowners wear masks and give workers plenty of space to make repairs or perform inspections.

And it means reminding residents to wash their hands frequently, maintain social distancing and take other steps to guard against COVID-19, even if infection rates continue to fall.

“If they stay safe, then we stay safe,” Howard said.

Workers’ lives are at stake. Essential services are as well.

In addition to handling service calls, the 125 members of Local 12160 monitor chemical levels in the drinking water and operate the authority’s offices. If COVID-19 swept through the workforce, Howard noted, more than 400,000 people in 15 communities could face service disruptions.

Workers know the hazards they face better than anyone else.

That is why they deserve extensive input into workplace safety plans.

When the pandemic hit, for example, the Niagara Falls Water Board asked Glenn Choolokian for help.

Choolokian, president of USW Local 9434, developed a safety plan with advice from labor and management that protected workers and kept the water flowing. He split the workforce into teams that rotated one week on the job and one week off so a surge in infections couldn’t devastate the entire operation.

Now, as the authority resumes more regular operations, he tells union members to contact him if they encounter hazardous conditions or other problems.

As Choolokian sees it, the pandemic requires an unprecedented level of cooperation—one that could make unions and employers partners in pushing for new workplace standards and other ways to enhance safety.

“It’s time to look at things differently,” he said. “I think we have to educate ourselves and see if there’s new equipment, new ideas, new ways of doing things.”

The local promoted public involvement in worker safety through social media posts, and it encouraged local businesses to make and donate PPE. In tight-knit Niagara Falls, Choolokian said, it’s been easy to get residents’ buy-in.

In coming months, that kind of support will become ever more important.

The COVID-19 economic slowdown caused many businesses to close or scale back operations, reducing the tax revenue collected by local governments.

At a time when communities must do more to protect public workers, some may try to cut corners instead. Scarpa fears that towns will cut jobs or slash budgets, straining already-vulnerable workforces.

In a crisis like that, public servants will rely on the public to stand with them in demanding that officials implement aggressive safety plans and provide the other resources that workers need.

“We can’t make these places run with bubble gum and paper clips,” Scarpa said.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute. Printed with permission.

About the Author: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).


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Puerto Rico Reinstates Collective Bargaining for Public Employees

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Members of the UAW and Puerto Rico’s Servidores Públicos Unidos (SPU)/AFSCME Council 95 and other public employees celebrated May 17 when Gov. Luis Fortuño signed into law a bill reinstating collective bargaining for public employees.

Unlike legislatures in states like Wisconsin and Ohio, which are trying to take away workers’ rights, Puerto Rico’s House and the Senate passed this bill unanimously.

Gov. Luis Fortuño signs a bill restoring collective bargaining rights to Puerto Rico’s public service employees.
Gov. Luis Fortuño signs a bill restoring collective bargaining rights to Puerto Rico’s public service employees.

Says SPU President Annette González:

This law is very important for workers since in essence it includes two clauses that allow us to attain two fundamental goals: Restore the acquired rights through the restitution of collective bargaining contracts [and] negotiate the economic aspects that will do justice to workers and their families.

The law ends a policy imposed in March 2009 when the administration enacted a fiscal emergency law that mandated a two-year freeze on the economic clauses of all collective bargaining agreements. The new law extends the non-economic clauses of the contracts until 2013 and allows workers to negotiate for salaries, benefits, bonuses and other economic aspects.

This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on May 18, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: James Parks’ first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He also has been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.


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Attack on Middle-Class Jobs, Workers Is Nationwide

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Image: Mike HallThe incredible response and mobilizations against the coordinated attacks on workers’ rights and middle-class jobs in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana have grabbed most of the media spotlight during the past few weeks.

But there are other serious assaults under way in dozens of states, pushed by corporate CEOs and their Republican puppets. Perhaps flying lowest under the radar is one of the most drastic measures, one that even its own supporters blatantly call Michigan’s “financial martial law.”

The so-called emergency managers bill would allow Gov. Rick Snyder (R) to declare a “financial emergency” in a city or school district and appoint a manager with broad powers, including the ability to fire local elected officials, break contracts, seize and sell assets, eliminate services—and even eliminate whole cities or school districts without any public input, according to the Michigan Messenger.

Last week, more than 1,500 people jammed the Lansing Capitol building to protest the bill during the state Senate’s debate. Ken Bower, a United Steelworker (USW) Local 2-21 member from Escanaba, Mich., said:

I’m here to tell the governor that he has to stop this attack on working-class citizens. Removing the people that we put into office without any check or balance is completely undemocratic.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) warns that that the bill:

empowers this financial czar with the governor’s approval to force a municipality into bankruptcy, a power that will surely be used to extract further concessions from hardworking public-sector workers.

Different versions of the bill have passed the state Senate and House and final action is expected early this week.usw_photo_wp

In a related note from Michigan, if there is any question what side Snyder stands on—CEOs’ or working people’s—his budget and tax proposals show he is firmly camped out with his corporate friends. Pat Garofalo at Think Progress points out:

Snyder has proposed ending his state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, cutting a $600 per child tax credit, and reducing credits for seniors, while also cutting funding for school districts by eight to ten percent. At the same time, as the Michigan League for Human Services found, the state’s business taxes would be reduced by nearly $2 billion, or 86 percent.

Elsewhere:

  • So-called right to work bills have been introduced in more than a dozen states, including Indiana (temporarily off the table), Maine, Michigan and Pennsylvania with Republican legislatures and governors.
  • Paycheck deception bills that would silence workers’ voices in the election process have been or soon will be introduced in nearly two dozen states, including 15 where Republicans control the legislature and hold the governor’s office, including Florida where the bill was approved by a Senate committee this morning.
  • Prevailing wage laws protect communities and workers from unscrupulous contractors low-balling bids on taxpayer-funded construction projects by setting wage rates to the local or prevailing standard. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), with the support of construction industry CEOs, vows to eliminate Ohio’s prevailing wage law, and legislation has been or will soon be introduced in 19 states, including  nine with dual Republican control.
  • In 22 states—12 with Republican governors and legislatures—moves are under way to eliminate Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) that would hurt communities, workers and small businesses by lowering wages.
  • Public school teachers and employees are fighting back against assaults in more than a dozen states, including some so-called “education reform” proposals that are thinly veiled attacks on teachers’ rights and privatization schemes.
  • Bills attacking immigrant workers’ rights and immigrant children’s education, including many patterned after Arizona’s anti-immigrant law passed last year, have been or will soon be introduced in some 30 states, half of which are Republican controlled.

This blog originally appeared in blog.aflcio.org on March 14, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When his collar was still blue, he carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He has also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold his blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen him at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. He was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still has the shirts, lost the hair.


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Martin Luther King Jr. Gave His Life Supporting Workers’ Rights

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Image: James ParksMartin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate this weekend, died fighting for the freedom of Memphis sanitation workers to form a union with AFSCME. For King, economic justice went hand in hand with civil rights and the right to join a union was critical to gaining economic justice.

Writing on AlterNet, Laura Flanders says:

King saw public workers as the first line of defense. That’s why he went to Memphis to stand by striking sanitation members of AFSCME, the public workers’ union. In his view they led the way in the fight for fair pay and benefits…and in the fight for dignity for those who shovel our snow and clean our streets.

Read her full column here. Read about the AFL-CIO’s 2011l King Day celebration here and here.

King also recognized that the anti-union politicians in the South were the same people who opposed civil rights for all Americans. That’s why he opposed union-busting ”right to work” for less laws. In fact, in 1961, he said:

In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, as “right-to-work.” It provides no “rights” and no “works.” Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining….We demand this fraud be stopped.

This article was originally published on AFL-CIO Now Blog.

About the Author: James Parks had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.


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Bloomberg’s Job Killing Budget Cuts

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amytraub4It’s the city’s ninth round of budget cuts in three fiscal years, and the most brutal. Mayor Bloomberg calls for 6,201 layoffs of public workers in the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years. Instead of responding at our firehouses, serving our frail elderly, and helping job-seekers perfect their resumes on the library computer, former New York City employees will instead crowd the unemployment lines – where, given the fact that there is just one job opening for every five Americans looking for work, they are likely to remain for some time. But this understates the impact on New York’s economy.

When we lay off public workers, we not only lose the services they provided to New Yorkers but also their spending power as city residents. As a result, laying off 6,200 New York City workers means destroying an additional 1,860 private sector jobs. The last thing New York needs is another 8,000+ jobless.

Think about it: the administrative worker in the city finance department who used to support her family on $45,000 a year now qualifies for a maximum $405 a week in unemployment benefits. She’ll buy cheaper groceries, cancel the cable, pull the kid out of ballet lessons, and put off the next shoe purchase, for starters. Suddenly the neighborhood grocery store, shoe shop and ballet studio have lost revenue: multiply that and they’ll quickly be ready for more layoffs of their own. Small businesses already on the edge may close up shop completely. In the meantime, New York taxpayers pick up the tab for her unemployment benefits as our former city worker searches in vain for a new job. It’s a bad deal all around.

Worse still, destroying 8,000 jobs in New York City is completely unnecessary. Economists find that progressive tax increases on higher income households do far less economic harm than spending cuts and layoffs. As the Fiscal Policy Institute has pointed out, New York City could raise $1 billion by raising personal income taxes on residents making more than $250,000 a year while still reducing taxes for lower-income households. Studies at the national and state level find that wealthy taxpayers do not flee tax increases in significant numbers. Yet Mayor Bloomberg has categorically ruled out such an increase, arguing that killing jobs and decimating city services is preferable.

DC37, a public employees’ union with a big stake in avoiding city job cuts, has identified still more sources of new revenue. The city could more seriously enforce its existing tax laws on billboards and cell phone antennas, for example, and could crack down on inappropriate property tax exemptions, making certain that when non-profits sell land to for-profit companies, property taxes are once again levied on those previously exempt parcels. Yet there’s no sign that these common sense proposals are on the table either.

This article was originally posted on DMI Blog.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.


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Keeping it Public (If the Libraries Don’t Sway You, the Blazing House Might)

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amytraub4Last week, the New York Times reported on Library Systems & Services, a private, for-profit company that an increasing number of towns are contracting to take over their local public libraries. The company pares budgets and turns a profit by, among others things, replacing long-term employees with those who will “work.” In the article, CEO Frank Pezzanite mocks “this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries” and ridicules the idea that “somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization.” The problem? Local residents seem to believe there is something all-American – and possibly sacred – about this community institution. I know where they’re coming from.

Public libraries represent the best of American tradition of local communities chipping in for the common good, while advancing democratic values of free inquiry and universal access.

Through our local libraries, we all contribute to create a public space where anyone can access the world’s outstanding literature, music, and film; popular entertainment; the fruits of human knowledge and insight; computer and internet access; resources for jobseekers and students; edifying speakers; programs that engage schoolchildren; and story hours that delight the youngest members of our community. I’m never going to check out that new Janet Evanovich novel (or, for that matter, Bill O’Reilly’s latest bestseller) but I’m damn glad my tax dollars paid for it to be available on the shelves. The common resource is bigger than any of our individual tastes.

Something of that is lost when a profit-driven company turns a community institution into a source of private gain. It’s not just the likelihood that public employees earning middle-class salaries will likely be turned out in favor of less experienced staff – although I’ve written in opposition to that as well. Rather, it’s the idea, articulated by American Library Association President Robert Stevens in response to the Times article, that for-profit libraries may not “remain directly accountable to the publics they serve.” Or, in the words of the late historian Tony Judt, “shifting ownership onto businessmen allows the state to relinquish moral obligations… A social service provided by a private company does not present itself as a collective good to which all citizens have a right.”

The point may be subtle when we’re talking about computers and books on a shelf (no matter how critical a part of democracy) but it’s hard to ignore a house on fire. This morning at Think Progress, Zaid Jilani describes the situation in Obion County, Tennessee, where fire services are funded by subscription fees rather than general tax revenue. Those who pay the fees can call the fire department to save lives and extinguish blazes. For those who can’t or won’t shell out for the service, Jilani’s headline says it all: Tennessee County’s Subscription-Based Firefighters Watch As Family Home Burns Down. Maybe there’s something to the “American flag, apple pie” thing about public services after all…

This article was originally published in DMI Blog.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.


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The Terrible Public Pension Threat

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Natasha ChartIt’s time for a class war over public union pensions. So says Ron Lieber, writing in the New York Times. Okay, let’s rumble. What’s the score, so far?

Despite defined benefit (DB) pensions, like the ones public employees get, being more economically efficient [pdf] and offering better returns, private employers have mostly switched to 401(k) plans, or defined contribution (DC) plans [pdf], because they’re cheaper. Between 1979 and 2001, the portion of the workforce covered by defined benefit pensions dropped by half. By 2008, only 20 percent of private workers had such a pension.

Businesses saved a lot of money by either switching to low cost 401(k) plans or dumping their pension obligations on the government [pdf]. Did they use their savings to create jobs? Not lately. These days, businesses are firing more people than they need to and sitting on the cash.

If recent history is any guide, those business savings still won’t go to average employee wages, which have been stagnant since the 1970s when union membership started declining to its current 12.3 percent of the labor force. Since 1979, extra savings have gone to the richest 1% of Americans who’ve seen their income go up 281 percent, with CEO pay going up 298 percent as the value of the minimum wage dropped 9.3 percent in value, and the pay of manufacturing and maintenance workers had gone up by only 4.3 percent, as of 2005.

Clearly, the investor class won that round.

The rich were positioned to get richer, even during this recession. It isn’t that there’s no money, it’s that money has been steadily taken out of circulation to be uselessly hoarded by the top one percent of income earners. And now, with government revenues starved by tax cuts for the rich and wage declines for most everyone else, the proposed solution is to break pension obligations to the few people who still have them.

Funny how big a threat pensions are supposed to be, now that they’re so rare. Ha ha.

“Who took our pensions and what do we have to do to get them back?” – Rep. Alan Grayson at Netroots Nation, July 24, 2010

You can see how it would have been harder 50 years ago to attack pensions, as Lieber does, as an unjustified, “terrifying” and “titanic” waste of resources. More people would have agreed with Rep. Grayson’s statement last month that, “everyone who works in America for 30 years should have a pension,” because more of them had decent pensions of their own.

Now, pensions are almost surprising. And about that, Jonathan Cohn had the best next question, emphasis mine:

But ask yourself the same question you should have been asking [during the debate about auto worker pensions]: To what extent is the problem that the retirement benefits for unionized public sector workers have become too generous? And to what extent is the problem that retirement benefits for everybody else have become too stingy?

For their age and education level, public employees receiving pensions make less than comparable private sector workers. They may even be excluded from Social Security benefits, as Dean Baker points out, adding that they tend to make no more than $40,000 to $50,000 per year and that the shortfall in their pension funds comes to less than two percent of government spending over the next 30 years.

One thing that about half of all public employees do for their not-very-princely salaries is educate children. On that score, it’s hard to argue with Paul Krugman’s statement that, “Everything we know about economic growth says that a well-educated population and high-quality infrastructure are crucial.” Not crucial enough to get them 281 percent pay raises, but crucial.

At present, 62 percent of US jobs now require some sort of special training beyond high school and in a decade, that might go up to 75 percent of jobs. Maybe some of these requirements are excessive, but it’s weird to hear anyone say we need less education.

Cut teachers’ lifetime compensation and, one way or another, less education is exactly what we’ll get.

And as for complaining about the pensions of all the other people who make less than their experience and education might be worth, our public police, fire department, emergency, maintenance, construction and engineering workers, you might as well come out in opposition to law and order and in favor of all the trains being late.

The pension alarmists would have us believe that the debate is about whether the public can afford to honor promises to retirees, which is bad enough. Though what it’s actually about is whether ordinary taxpayers should have to either pay for private schools, private bodyguards and private groundskeepers in private real estate developments, or accept that their cities and towns are going to keep falling apart around them because it isn’t anyone’s job to hold them together anymore.

Which is nothing less than a threat to price the average taxpayer out of all the benefits of civilization so that the top one percent of income earners won’t have to suffer the return of Clinton-era tax rates.

About the Author: Natasha Chart has been blogging about the environment, social justice and various other political topics since 2002. She currently writes at MyDD.com and works as an online marketing consultant in Philadelphia.


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More Salvos in the False “Class War” on Public Pensions

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amytraub4Repeat something often enough and it becomes, if not true, at least a solid bit of conventional wisdom. Consider Ron Lieber’s column in Saturday’s New York Times, which neatly recycles an editorial the Wall Street Journal ran back in March. The issue: the pensions that guarantee public employees a middle-class standard of living in retirement have become more difficult for cities and states to afford. This, according to Lieber and the chorus of conservatives singing the same tune, means a “class war” pitting sanitation workers who deferred compensation so that they could retire with dignity against “have-not” taxpayers who would like some retirement security of their own. Lieber even knows the outcome: public workers should to get ready for many more states and municipalities to engage in “rare acts of courage” and break their promises to pensioners.

Jonathan Cohn at the New Republic asks the obvious question “to what extent is the problem that retirement benefits for everybody else have become too stingy?”

It’s a point I’ve been making as well:

One out of three working Americans has no retirement savings to rely on beyond Social Security, many others have saved very little, especially now that the value of their homes has been destroyed. When it’s public pensions that are falling short, it’s very visible. When it’s the private savings of millions of individual households, it’s easy to overlook. But when we start to hear that it has become “too expensive” to provide teachers and police officers with a decent retirement, we know no one else has a chance at retirement security either.

Former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm, quoted in Lieber’s article, takes the point to its logical conclusion, arguing that “the New Deal is demographically obsolete.” Translation: we’d all better get used to the new normal of low pay, few benefits, and no retirement, sooner rather than later. After all, demographics are inexorable. Resistance is futile.

As Paul Krugman points out in today’s Times, the same air of inevitability hangs over the provision of critical state and city services. Cities and states are broke, the argument goes, there’s nothing we can do. We can neither keep streetlights on nor let teachers retire. Except that in both cases the argument is false:

We’re told that we have no choice, that basic government functions — essential services that have been provided for generations — are no longer affordable. And it’s true that state and local governments, hit hard by the recession, are cash-strapped. But they wouldn’t be quite as cash-strapped if their politicians were willing to consider at least some tax increases.

Krugman’s point about how we got here is equally true of the debate around public employees and their pensions:

It’s the logical consequence of three decades of antigovernment rhetoric, rhetoric that has convinced many voters that a dollar collected in taxes is always a dollar wasted, that the public sector can’t do anything right.

Unfortunately, Lieber’s column effectively adds to that rhetoric.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.


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War on Public Workers

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amytraub4Conservatives have declared a new class war, but it’s not on bankers earning seven-figure bonuses. Instead, as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels told Politico recently, the “new privileged class in America” is government employees, who “are better paid than the people who pay their salaries.” We have to escape “public sector unions’ stranglehold on state and local governments,” agreed Mort Zuckerman, billionaire editor of U.S. News & World Report, “or it will crush us.” Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal‘s Paul Gigot ominously predicts “a showdown looming across the country between taxpayers and public employee unions over pay and pensions,” while the Heritage Foundation warns that “the more the government taxes, the more it can pay its unionized workers.”

This decades-old assault on government employees has acquired new potency at a time of widespread economic suffering and populist rage. But the attacks have little basis in reality. A recent study by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence and the National Institute on Retirement Security finds that when such factors as education and work experience are accounted for, state and local employees earn 11 to 12 percent less than comparable private sector workers. Even when public employees’ relatively decent pensions and health coverage are included, their total compensation still lags behind workers in private industry. A separate analysis by the Center for Housing Policy finds that despite recent declines in home prices, police officers and elementary school teachers still don’t earn enough to buy a typical house in two out of five metro areas. Firefighters and librarians are unable to afford the median home in the New York, Los Angeles and Chicago metro areas. Nationwide, a school bus driver’s wage isn’t enough to pay rent on a standard two-bedroom apartment.

Despite American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funding, which preserved jobs and public services, city and state workers have been affected by the recession. The Economic Policy Institute reports that 180,000 local government employees have been laid off since August 2008, while furloughs have become a fact of life for public workers across the country. Much bigger cuts lie ahead: Education Secretary Arne Duncan warns that as stimulus funding dries up, as many as 300,000 teachers and other school personnel could lose their jobs this year to budget cuts.

The lavish lifestyle of public workers is a myth, but the right-wing mythmakers know it’s a powerful talking point. By attacking public workers, they can demonize “big labor” and “big government” at the same time, while deflecting attention from the more logical target of Middle America’s rage: the irresponsible Wall Street traders, whose risky, high-profit business practices brought down the economy, and the lax regulators who let them get away with it.

At its heart, the scapegoating of public employees is an insidious way to divide public and private sector workers who share many of the same interests. The Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas, for example, cynically argues that cutting pensions for transit employees is an act of “pure social justice” because it might spare minimum-wage workers higher subway fares. Absent is any disussion of raising the minimum wage or of more progressive means of funding the transit system. Low-wage workers aren’t Gelinas’s real concern; they’re just a rhetorical device in her assault on public employees.

The desired result is clear: there will be less pressure to address the decades-long erosion of pay and benefits for most working people in the private sector if public anger can be focused on the bus mechanic who still has health coverage. With a slim majority of all union workers employed in the public sector, the conservative class war amounts to dragging unionized public employees down to the level of contingent no-benefits workers before they can leverage their power to help private sector workers raise their own workplace standards.

Then there’s the “big government” angle. To the right, the budget crises engulfing American cities and states stem from one cause: as Nick Gillespie of Reason repeats ad nauseam, “They spend too much!”—especially on the supposedly lavish compensation of public workers. This simplistic narrative ignores how the nation’s deep recession has shrunk city and state tax revenue and omits the fact that plummeting stock markets have decimated government pension funds. To the extent that conservatives succeed in reducing fiscal woes to a case of runaway spending, politicians find it easier to address budget shortfalls with public sector furlough days, wage freezes, layoffs and benefit cuts than with progressive tax increases that, many economists conclude, would cause the least harm to the recovery.

This orchestrated assault may already be working: witness formerly proworker politicians like New York’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Cuomo’s attempt to demonstrate toughness by proclaiming, “We are going to be tangling with public employee unions.”

Yet it’s a short step from lambasting public workers to rejecting the very idea of public goods and services—and of government itself. With the nation still reeling from the harm caused by underregulated markets, conservatives are using city and state budget crises to call for across-the-board privatization, entrusting unaccountable private companies with an ever greater share of the public good. At the same time, the myth of the overpaid public employee is being used to undermine a range of progressive priorities, from financial reform to job creation bills like the Local Jobs for America Act, which would boost the economy by preserving public services and public sector jobs. It’s time for progressives to fight back and confront the falsehood.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. She received a graduate fellowship to study political science at Columbia University, where she earned her Masters degree in 2001 and completed coursework towards a Ph.D. Her studies focused on comparative political economy, political theory, and social movements. Funded by a field research grant from the Tinker Foundation, Amy conducted original research in Mexico City, exploring the development of the Mexican student movement. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers. She has also been active on the local political scene working with progressive elected officials. Amy resides in Manhattan Valley with her husband

This piece was originally published in The Nation. Reprinted with permission by the author.


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