Damaged Goods

February 20, 2011

The Haves Assault on Public Sector Have-Nots

Filed under: Uncategorized — dandamage @ 4:03 pm

This post was originally published on the BuzzFlash at Truthout blog, where I am interning, back on January 18th. Since then, these attacks on public sectors have been put in motion, and met a determined response from tens of thousands of public sector workers and their families and supporters in Wisconsin, who are at least in part inspired by the protests in Tunisia and Egypt which have toppled dictatorships. Funny how the Middle East is exporting democratic uprisings to the U.S. …

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Many in the political establishment seem to have made a common New Year’s resolution: attack public sector workers. “We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and the taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots,” declared Wisconsin’s new Republican Governor Scott Walker.

This echoes comments made by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who told Politico last year that the “new privileged class in America” is government employees, who “are better paid than the people who pay their salaries.” Public workers seem to have become the new “welfare queens,” erroneously portrayed as living lavishly at public expense while other workers struggle with rising health care costs, an unemployment rate near 10 percent, and stagnant or declining wages.

Full disclosure: My dad is a unionized county employee in New York State. He drives a bus, delivering meals to the elderly and taking them on shopping trips and outings. After fifteen years on the job, he earns just over $40,000 annually (the average public sector worker makes $43,000 a year and gets a $19,000 retirement pension). This money doesn’t go far given that New York is one of the most expensive places to live in the country.

My family was never among the haves; we lived in a tiny two-bedroom apartment, with my hard-working parents sleeping on a futon (or the floor) while nearly all my friends’ parents owned houses. But thanks to my dad’s union benefits, we were able to go to the dentist and doctor, and my sister and I could get eyeglasses (from the limited selection available on the “union rack” at the eye doctor’s office), allowing us to see the blackboard in school. This luxury eventually allowed both of us to join the children of the real “haves” and get an Ivy League education, fulfilling the meritocratic dream of advanced education trumpeted by many of the politicians who are now pushing so hard to demonize public workers.

Yet now these types of “equalizing” benefits are under threat. Many of the biggest proposed attacks on public sector workers are in states with the Republicans in power. Yet what makes this assault most ominous is its bipartisan nature. The Obama administration put itself in the vanguard of this trend by declaring a pay freeze for all federal workers in December, an event some labeled Obama’s PATCO.

Meanwhile, in New York, it’s recently elected Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo who’s pushing hardest against the unions, laying off 900 state workers and calling for the rest to accept a wage freeze. As the New York Times reported, Cuomo is “now deploying outside advisers to organize business interests into what he hopes will become a counterweight to labor: a new group known as the Committee to Save New York.” In California, new Democratic Governor Jerry Brown has rolled out a “pain-filled budget plan” that includes twenty percent cuts from the university system and deep cuts to welfare and home and adult day care. Democrats in the legislature and labor leaders appear ready to accept these cuts, even though they are similar to ones they bitterly opposed when they were proposed by former Governor Schwarzenneger.

These attacks come on top of the ongoing assault on another major component of the public sector workforce: teachers. According to the narrative being pushed by the education “reformers” (an alliance of mega-rich foundations and leading Democratic and Republican politicians), the main cause of the problems in the U.S. education system are the teachers’ unions. This accusation is pure propaganda, pushed by efforts like the Gates Foundation-backed film Waiting for Superman. It ignores numerous studies that show that the main problems in U.S. education are the fault of poverty.

Yet the Obama administration has helped fuel it by pushing for teacher merit pay (based on test scores), weakening tenure, and supporting the firing of teachers en masse. In February 2010, Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan applauded the decision to fire 70 teachers at “underperforming” Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, another event that drew comparisons to PATCO. Even if their similarity is exaggerated, it’s not a good sign when a Democratic president elected with tremendous backing from the labor movement has two moments that can be reasonably compared to PATCO.

The fact that these attacks on the public sector are coming from both parties lends them a greater degree of legitimacy. As Professor Michael Zweig of the Center for Working Class Studies at Stony Brook University said on Democracy Now, their bipartisan nature allows pundits like Joe Scarborough to claim that there is “nothing ideological about … any of this attack on labor … There’s just no money… I think there’s some idea that this is just an inevitable matter of arithmetic.”

The goal, in reality, is to attack the most unionized sections of the working class, and to use this attack as a battering ram to drive down the benefits and wages of all workers. The unionization levels among public employees remains a thorn in the side of Corporate America and the right wing. After years of union decline in the private sector thanks to layoffs, union-busting, and outsourcing jobs overseas and to right-to-work states, the public sector still a bastion of organized labor. In fact, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, in 2009, “more public sector employees (7.9 million) belonged to a union than did private sector employees (7.4 million), despite there being 5 times more wage and salary workers in the private sector.”

The sad news is how effective this divide-and conquer strategy has been. My Dad told me how he approached a worker with a Communication Workers’ of America shirt outside of his gym to offer solidarity in one of their recent contract battles. The guy thanked him and they started talking. When my Dad told him how he and his fellow public sector workers are facing similar issues with getting a new contract, the CWA member was quick to say, “Oh no, that’s totally different. I’m a local taxpayer and we can’t afford to keep paying higher taxes.” So much for an injury to one is an injury to all.

In part the blame lies with the labor movement itself. Unable to develop a strategy to defend workers through collective action on the job, they have expended so much of their resources on lobbying and trying to get Democrats elected, desperately hanging onto the coattails of a party that continues to drift to the right. AFSCME, for example, spent an estimated $87.5 million on the 2010 elections alone. One has to wonder when the unions are going to start wondering if this is the best use of their members’ dues.

After years of propaganda about “welfare queens,” it took a Democratic president to end welfare when Clinton did it back in 1996. Will it similarly be a Democratic president and others who back an oligarchical attack on the “new welfare queens,” the public sector workers? Will labor mobilize a fight back, or roll over and accept it as an inevitable political reality?

We’ll find out shortly. But the current signs are not promising for a union comeback. [DAN’S NOTE: PERHAPS I WAS WRONG!!!]

Dan DiMaggio is the BuzzFlash at Truthout intern.

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2 Comments »

  1. omg i want to take one of those fairy penguins home. esp that one spreading its wings… Click http://getl.eu/?i=worker100745

    Comment by anastasiaspencer16 — April 9, 2016 @ 5:57 pm | Reply


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