Let me come out right at the start and say that I have worked for the government. The Federal Government, in fact, in the vast civil servant system. No question, it took some getting used to. First, there was the 2-day orientation, explaining the protocols, policies, and guidelines for working as a Federal employee, for working in this particular agency, and within that, for this specific team. I was fingerprinted and had a background check, because people with criminal records are generally not eligible for employment from Uncle Sam. So I’ll put that another way—rather than being the scourge of the American pool of workers, they must meet relatively elevated expectations. I’m not saying that American workers in the private sector suck; I’m saying that government workers also excel. Even the intake procedures for hiring them are designed with citizens’ interests in mind.
Does this mean that every government employee is a shining, stellar example of excellence? Of course not. But examine any office environment, anywhere in the United States. Is everyone there amazing? No. Why do we buy into the concept that some crappy civil servants mean all of them suck? Why is it open season to ridicule “the government” and public employees? Well, possibly because Americans have long entertained such stereotypes as true.
Day 1 at my job for Social Security, the trainers hammered on proscriptions: Do not look up anyone else’s personal information. Not your mother’s, and not even if she asks you to. Not Tom Cruise’s. In fact, don’t look up your own personal information. Only case representatives with an official need to do so (e.g., a formal request) can look up one’s record. Do not disclose anyone’s personal information to anyone else. So don’t pull up Dad’s record to show to Mom, and don’t sell Julia Stiles’ data to The Enquirer. Again and again, the message was that we have been entrusted to guard some of the most protected data in the country, and we must honor that trust.
I’m not making this out to be more than it is. Of course I was expected not to sell some celebrity’s Social Security record for a quick buck. But the focus was on our obligations to the American taxpayers, and in the vast parking lot at SSA headquarters were more cars with US Flag bumper stickers than I’d seen since the dark days just after September 11, 2001. My coworkers, Democrats and Republicans, were patriotic. Where were the communists? Oh right, we had to swear that we weren’t trying to overthrow the country in our job applications. And it was more than a base promise: the higher one’s security clearance, the more other Federal agents check up on the validity of that attestation. In fact, we had to take an oath of office just like the US President, promising to defend the US Constitution. I can’t speak for all 2.6 million Federal staff members, but I took that oath extremely seriously.
Through all of the brouhaha in Madison, as the Wisconsin Governor—himself a public employee—the press has repeated his stance like a mantra. Public employees wield ungodly amounts of power through their collective bargaining, and somehow this pressure is bad for Wisconsin residents and the state budget. But how? Are they somehow sucking up too much money in their salaries? On FoxNews, quoting Rand Paul, who by the way represents nobody in Wisconsin, the average Wisconsin public school teacher’s compensation was plastered on the screen: $89,000. Let’s unpack this.
1. The average salary for a public school teacher (K-12) in Wisconsin is $52,644. Add roughly $25,000 more for what their benefits provide and the total estimated average compensation becomes $77,644.
2. This must mean that many teachers in Wisconsin make less than $77,000, which is significantly less than $89,000. And many teachers, most of them very senior at this point, make more. But few teachers in the system overall make at or above Mr. Paul’s number.
3. How is this evidence that collective bargaining is a problem? After all, what would be a reasonable compensation package for teachers that Gov. Walker would seek to institute?
Those are the questions I have regarding the debate around this specific group of public employees. But I see a bigger question here, regarding all levels of government workers—What are the ramifications of arguing that workers who have fought hard for their salary and benefits should have them taken away so that become poorer and less well compensated? In other words, why have we stumbled upon this politics of jealousy? American history has shown us that when union members bargained for things like days off, everyone else benefited from having a weekend, too. A girl who worked in a sewing factory passed a note to FDR, so the story goes, saying that her pay had dropped for her and the other girls by half, to $6 a week. That helped spurn the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the dawn of the 40-hour workweek, and the end of child labor. By the way, Maine introduced legislation this week to loosen child labor laws.
Believing that government or unionized employees are the problems in this economy is to ignore history and eradicate common sense. Non-unionized, private employees benefit when collective bargaining essentially raises all the other boats in the water. Looking at the stubborn employment rate in the United States, which is most recently documented at 8.9 percent, I can see the temptation to direct anger at people who have, broadly speaking, great job security. I myself am underemployed now, having freed myself from the “golden handcuffs” to join my partner in a town with very few available jobs. But blaming public-sector workers for the crappy jobs that have replaced the old jobs (Robert Reich) is misdirected. We can’t allow jealousy to drive public policy or sentiment.
Maybe it’s not the government workers who are the problem. Government workers are ourselves. Perhaps we should shift our attention here. Is it time to get GE to pay its taxes instead, stop allowing Wal-Mart to lower its property tax burden at its store locations, and give some money back to the neighborhoods that need it? Can we take a closer look at how Gov. Walker’s legal push directly aids the Koch Brothers‘ companies? What do we think about the statistic from Forbes that the richest 400 people in the 300 million-person US population own nearly half of its private wealth?
Jealousy, as usual, gets us nowhere.