Busted budgets used as excuse for class war
March 4, 2011

Public employees perform vital work. They are our police and firefighters. They are our teachers at the elementary school, high school, and University levels. They are the City workers who plow our streets after a snowstorm. They provide us with health care at Stroger Hospital and the University of Illinois at Chicago. They are the librarians who help our children. They are the school workers who deal with disabled children. They are the bus drivers who get us to work and our children to school.

The list goes on; their services are vital.

Now, however, there is a class war being waged against public workers. As all wars are, at first the war was waged with words and propaganda, calling public workers lazy, fat, goldbricking, etc.

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has deemed public workers the “new privileged class in America”
who “are better paid than the people who pay their salaries,” and his attitude is pretty much standard among elected officials now that the war has turned hot, and nationwide.

That war has turned hot for several reasons. First, private sector employees have seen health and pension benefits cut for decades. Often, their reaction is to question why public employees still have decent benefits—although a better question would be why private sector employees’ benefits cannot be improved in a race to the top, rather than why all workersmust have benefits reduced in a race to the bottom.

Second, with the economy in poor shape and State, County, and City budgets in deep deficit, elected officials are looking where to cut, and those benefit packages are tempting. With decades of propaganda saying that taxes cannot be raised on the rich, they never think about seeking revenue enhancements from those who actually can afford to pay for them. An exception that proves the rule is Minnesota, where Governor Mark Dayton is calling for raising taxes on the rich. Conservatives and the rich are horrified — a horror they never display when workers’ benefits are cut.

Third, there’s a political strategy, and Republican strategist Karl Rove has made no secret of it. The more union jobs that can be eliminated andmany public sector jobs are union—the fewer union dues go to political contributions that end up in Democratic candidates’ coffers.

Yet this is not just a GOP strategy, as too many corporate-friendly Democratic officials are quick to jump on the bandwagon rolling over their own working class voters. In the Illinois General Assembly, for example, HB 146 would reduce public workers’ pension benefits—and several Democrats are co-sponsors of the legislation.

Even a supposedly “nonpartisan” group, the Civic Federation, is leading the charge in Chicago to cut public employees benefits, favoring corporations over workers.

In some states, there is a full-court press to make life harder for workers. Indiana, Idaho, and Tennessee all are working to reduce or eliminate teachers’ right to collective bargaining. Ohio Governor John Kasich wants to strip all state workers of their right to collective bargaining, and Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin not only wants to eliminate collective bargaining but expects state workers to give up nearly 20% of their pay to cover existing pension and health benefits, and he has threatened to call out the national guard against workers.

Here in Illinois things are not much better. Although the banks and deregulation caused the current recession, it’s the public sector workers who had nothing to do with those causes who are expected to pay, with proposals by State, County, and City officials to cut jobs, cut benefits, and raise the amount that workers have to pay for those dwindling benefits of health care and pensions.

Public sector employees are not the new privileged class. A study by the Center on State and Local Government Excellence and National Institute on Retirement Security shows that government employees earn up to 12% less than private sector employees in comparable jobs, and even when their pension and health coverage are factored in, total compensation still is less than in private industry. Public sector employees do not get Social Security, either.

The scapegoating of public workers will only result in more unemployment as public sector jobs are cut; poorer provision of vital public services; more privatization, which raises costs while reducing quality; and more of a wedge between public sector employees and their neighbors who have succumbed to the propaganda that these vital individuals are lazy fat cats.

The grand goal is divide and conquer, to reduce government as much as possible while privatizing and corporatizing formerly public services and eliminating one of labor’s few tools, collective bargaining, to allow the corporations to run roughshod over the entire American system.

State, County, and City workers are fighting against cuts in benefits and pensions because they want to hold onto those two aspects of the American dream that much of the private sector has let slip away. That doesn’t make public sector workers the new privileged class. That makes them the remnant of the swiftly dwindling American middle class, vital to the provision of public services that everyone wants and needs.