Front-line defenders of public services and the common good
Besieged public workers key to labor’s fate
Steve Hoffman
volume:  
volume 34
issue 4
August 2013
imagestuff

In the Bay Area, transit workers went on strike in July to demand improved safety for themselves and the public. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Scarcely a day goes by when public workers are not blamed for the nation’s economic woes. But how could your local hard-working teacher, librarian, or garbage collector be such a menace to society?

To the corporate fat cats, the menace lies in their unionization rate of 35.9 percent—far above the rate for private sector workers, who have been knocked down to 6.6 percent. If public sector unions could be busted, labor would be in trouble. Gone would be the main organized force that could stand in the way of the union-bashing, anti-government zealots and their agenda — privatized public services, universally low wages, and astronomic profits.

Bipartisan war. Unlike employees of private companies, public employees’ union rights are not enshrined in the National Labor Relations Act. So the similar labor rights that they have won at the state level are subject to attack by governors and state legislatures.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker escalated the war in 2011. He got huge concessions on wages and benefits from state workers, and then went on to pass a law that gutted their collective bargaining rights. In beleaguered cities like Detroit, the governor has appointed emergency managers who can disband local governments and rip up city employee contracts.

When it comes to extracting concessions from those who work for state and local governments, Democrats are no bush leaguers. California’s Democratic governor Jerry Brown pushed for and got a public employee pension “reform” that will cut benefits and jack up paycheck deductions for many workers. In Massachusetts, a Democratic legislature and governor enacted a law in 2011 that revoked the right of municipal employee unions to bargain over changes to their healthcare benefits.

And then there is President Obama’s secretary of education Arne Duncan, who promotes non-union charter schools and getting rid of union protections for teachers. Obama himself never stepped foot in Wisconsin to defend unions as they came under fierce attack.

Lies, lies, and more lies. Myths about government workers abound. Politicians exclaim, “They are overpaid!” Yet the Economic Policy Institute has found that they are generally paid 11 percent less than their private sector counterparts.

State workers in Washington are told that they must pay far more for their healthcare. But the media never mentions that state employees face eight years without a pay raise, and the state’s own salary survey reveals that nearly a third of the workforce is paid more than 25 percent below the prevailing wage for the work they do.

Another myth is that private enterprise is efficient and that public workers are lazy. Tell that to those who keep public services going during recession-driven increases in demand, even as 600,000 of their co-workers have been laid off across the country since 2008. Also, a study by the Project on Government Oversight found that in 33 of 35 occupations, the government paid billions more to contractors than it would have paid government employees for doing the same work.

There is a well-oiled machine that translates this rhetoric into public policy. The corporate-funded, anti-union American Legislative Exchange Council drafts bills and lobbies state legislatures across the nation to promote privatization and deregulation.

Who is targeted? Due to affirmative action, many women and African Americans have landed government jobs. As a result, they are disproportionately impacted by enormous cuts in government budgets. Women held 70.5 percent of the jobs lost between 2007 and 2011, while African Americans held 19.8 percent of the positions gone.

The war on public workers is closely tied to the war that rages against the poor. There are alternatives, such as taxing the corporations that are raking in record profits, and accumulating an unprecedented $5 trillion in assets. Getting these elites to pony up would raise the revenue needed to rehire workers, restore and expand social services, and relieve students of crushing debt.

But the rich folks who run Congress won’t go there. Instead they pass laws that set up publicly provided services for failure. For instance, the U.S. Postal Service must now pre-fund pension obligations for workers who are not yet born! This is something no other agency or business does. This absurd pension burden creates a false budget crisis, making the service ripe for privatization. A universal service would be dismantled, since private companies like Federal Express and UPS don’t deliver to many rural areas. Again the jobs impact is skewed, since the workforce is largely workers of color and 20 percent African American.

Striking back. The targets of this demonization are not sitting on their hands.

It was Wisconsin teachers, primarily women, who led the walkouts that brought out hundreds of thousands to protest Governor Walker’s anti-union agenda. In June, healthcare technicians at University of California Medical Centers struck for two days, with adequate staffing to provide quality care as a central demand. In July, Bay Area public transit workers tied the metropolis in knots with a four-day strike.

Since April, the NAACP has led “Moral Monday” protests and civil disobedience at the North Carolina statehouse to stop mean-spirited cuts to public services. The June 24 action — the biggest yet with over 5,000 protestors and 120 arrests — was about women, labor and social justice. Unionists came out in force, and joined others to also demand women’s right to control their bodies.

Often the top leadership of public sector unions pulls back on the reigns. In Wisconsin they ignored calls for a general strike, instead funneling the movement into a dead-end campaign to recall the governor. In the California strikes mentioned above they sent strikers back to work before a good contract was won, and in the case of the medical centers announcing they would ahead of time.

But the ranks are ready to protest and strike to win fair treatment and preserve the services that they provide to the public. A strong alliance with besieged communities could spawn a movement that can win more justice for workers, as well as beat back attacks on the common good.

The working class needs a labor movement that engages in this fight with everything it has. There is too much at stake to do otherwise.

Steve Hoffman, an electrician at a Seattle community college, can be reached at stevhoff@earthlink.net.

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