Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Local Jobs for America Act’

War on Public Workers

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

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.

Senate Passes Jobs Bill, Obama Signature Next

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

Image: Mike HallThe U.S. Senate today passed a jobs bill that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka calls a ”good start” in helping the nation’s workers climb out of the 11-million-deep jobs hole dug by the Wall Street greed that propelled the economy’s nosedive.

But he says the bill—which is on its way to the White House for President Obama’s signature—must be the first step of a broad and intensive effort to rebuild the economy.

Much more needs to be done. We need to restore the jobs that were lost to the financial debacle, and Wall Street should pay to create them. We must invest in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and in the green jobs of the future. We have to maintain funding for vital services by state and local governments and prevent destructive cuts in education, police and fire protection and more.

We must take the additional steps needed to extend unemployment insurance and health care lifelines to the unemployed. We must increase funding for neglected communities to match people who want to work with jobs that need to be done. And we should move right now to use leftover TARP money to get credit flowing to Main Street.

The $17.6 billion bill includes a one-year extension of the federal highway program, an extension of the Build America Bonds program that helps states finance certain infrastructure projects and tax incentives for employers to hire workers.

The Senate first passed the legislation in February, but minor changes by the House forced a second vote on the legislation.

Other pending jobs legislation includes a December-passed House bill that is a more extensive jobs bill with an emphasis on jobs-creating infrastructure projects. The next step for the bill is uncertain—Senate leaders have promised to move further jobs-related legislation, but no time table has been set. Also this month, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) introduced the Local Jobs for America Act, which would create or save up to 1 million public- and private-sector jobs. Jobs saved would include those such as the firefighters, the police and teachers and others whose jobs are in jeopardy because of local government budget cuts.

*This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on March 17, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

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. I came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When my collar was still blue, I 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. I’ve also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold my blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen me at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. I was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still have the shirts, lost the hair.

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