It is a given that public employees and liberal Democrats fail to grasp many key realities of life for private sector workers. But amazingly, those on the political right fail to understand the role of public service employees and their unions and how they impact our economy.
In the past year we’ve lost over 600,000 public sector jobs. It’s not Obama’s fault at all. Governors in many states and especially in those dominated by Republicans have cut the maximum number of public employees so they can to balance budgets, while the Congress fails to act on President Obama’s pleas to vote funds to get public sector workers back to work.
When a teacher, firefighter, police officer, or public sector worker is laid off everything that happens when a private sector worker is laid off or loses their jobs occurs. The worker without a job pays much less in taxes. They buy much less as consumers as they are out of work. And finally, what they do for our society is lost.
To hear the Rush Limbaugh’s and Mitt Romney’s and Governor Walker’s tell it public sector workers don’t pay taxes but are “takers and not makers.” But they do pay taxes and at rates commensurate with income. If they own a home or rent an apartment they contribute to property taxes. When jobless, public sector workers can’t buy nearly as much as consumers because the money is no longer there. The economic impact, a kind of drag on economic recovery, is just as great as with the private sector job losses we saw at the front end of the depression.
And worst of all, right wingers just don’t understand how public sector workers contribute to our quality of life and our safety.
For example, Steve Perry the founder and principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Harford, Connecticut stopped in Milwaukee recently to tell Wisconsin residents that teachers unions control the school day and year and whether or not teachers are fired and so the kids fall through the cracks and get poorer educations as a result; that Scott Walker did the right thing to end collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin.
Perry said that now that teachers can’t bargain collectively any longer, school districts can now do things to rectify the problems in our schools. He identified the main problem as the fact that upwards of eighty percent of school spending is on staff and benefits. That translates into the idea that we need to drastically cut teacher pay and benefits to improve education. The savings under Perry’s model would go to lengthening the school day and school year. He believes that parental involvement in their children’s education is way overrated and perhaps even detrimental to learning.
What all this adds up to is the devaluation of the people who deliver education to the student most directly: the teacher. Studies for thirty years and more have shown that having a great teacher in a classroom can make the most difference in student performance and motivation. Perry’s idea is that simply keeping the kid in school longer each day and over the entire year will be superior to anything a high quality teacher can do. Most teachers, particularly those in urban districts where a large gap in reading and math scores persists for minority students would disagree about pay but support more school time for those kids as Perry does.
If you were on trial for murder and you were facing the death penalty would you want the best lawyer you could get? Do the best lawyers cost a lot or nothing at all? You know the answer. In our economy we pay people commensurate with performance and ability and their level of education. So why would teachers who earn barely over the minimum wage be a better bet for your kid than one who is unionized and has a Union contract that carries with it a high level of performance, professionalism experience, and education and yes the pay that says they are the best at what they do. Unions do help kids. Why? Because they support and aid the great teachers who teach the kids and quality teachers for every classroom is the most important thing we can do to improve education in the United States. Perry fails to grasp this.
In Scranton, Pennsylvania, budget cuts have put both professional full-time police officers and firefighters at minimum wage levels of someone who works to greet us at Walmart. While no offense is given to those fine people, we ought to want our public safety workers to be highly trained professionals with experience. That costs money, and is worth much more than seven or eight bucks an hour.
With police officers losing half or more than half of their previous pay, look for corruption, which is police officers on the take to increase dramatically as they look for ways to supplement income, often illegally. Look for a lot of turnover too. And you must think just how motivated these people will be to save you from a criminal, or pull you out of a burning building. Is risking their lives really worth it on barely over the Federal minimum wage?
We have public sector workers because they are more answerable to municipal, county, state and Federal government and not some private corporation. Private concerns are best for the marketplace, but public employees fill essential roles that improve our safety and quality of life that are immeasurable and almost infinite.
As it is, many states have already gone to private companies to operate their prisons with disastrous results. In Arizona, there is a monetary incentive to lock people up for as long as possible, rather than one based on public safety. And in other states the largest prison riots have occurred in those facilities that are privately run where prison guards are poorly trained and poorly paid.
Getting 600,000 public workers back to work will dramatically improve our quality of life and safety; provide private business with more customers and profit, and more tax revenues to balance budgets. The paradox here is that dramatically cutting public sector employment to balance budgets and get the economy moving actually is shown to have the opposite effect. And so much that is intangible about the quality of our lives flows not only from the wonders of the marketplace but from the dedicated public service of so many professionals we need to protect and serve us.