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Dodging Class War By Scapegoating Public Employees

Almost every time I crack open the Los Angeles Times, I’m reminded of Public Enemy Number One in the United States: Public employees. Public employees are to blame for everything that is wrong with society, with their greedy demands for pensions, unreasonable requests for vacation time, and persistent and annoying habits like putting out fires, educating children, cleaning up garbage, and building roads.

And when I say ‘almost every time,’ I’m not kidding; I just clicked over to their front page, which features this ‘expose’ on state employee salaries front and centre on the first page. Approximately 208,000 people are employed by the State of California,  and the Times wants us to know that ‘more than 1,400’ of them make an excess of $200,000 a year. Those faceless bureaucrats, stealing money from the mouths of children! Oh, wait, most of them are health care providers in the prison system. How dare doctors and nurses provide health care services?!

The United States is facing an unprecedented attack on public employees, spearheaded by both democrats and conservatives. As the economy tightens and hardship becomes more apparent, almost every media outlet can spare some ink on blaming public employees for the crisis, particularly in regions like California, where they are fingered for the state’s budget problems because of their employment-linked benefits, contractually promised to them as part of the terms of employment. Many of these attacks are not actually based in fact, but that doesn’t stop people from believing, and repeating, the rhetoric. Clearly, all of California’s budget problems would be solved if only we didn’t have to pay pensions to retired schoolteachers.

States across the nation are attempting to limit the protections public employees fought so hard for, and the conservative media in particular is fanning the flames. From the right, the narrative is that public employees live high off the fat of the land while employed and then dive into a pool of milk and honey when they retire and start collecting their pensions. The flames of resentment are fanned high by blaming public employees for social ills, and they make such a convenient target, because there are so many of them, and they are so visible. After all, doesn’t everyone know a social worker who drives a Lexus? No? Okay then.

The push against public employees has carried insidious overtones. Historically, public employees have had some of the best workplace protections in the United States, even as private industry engages in rampant abuses. This year, numerous states have passed measures in an attempt to limit collective bargaining rights and other protections afforded to public workers. These measures are designed to bring public employees down to the same level as the rest of us when we should be doing the reverse, and fighting for more and better workplace protections for everyone; unionbusting is alive and well across the private sector and it’s extending tentacles across the public now as well.

The neat framing of public employees as the enemy, of course, allows for the continued lack of attention to far larger issues, like the actual problems leading to economic collapse. There are clear culprits, if you want to talk about where the money is going and who is benefiting from it, and those culprits are the people concentrating the wealth in their hands; a firefighter collecting a pension isn’t having nearly as much of an impact as a wealthy tax evader. A garbage collector taking temporary disability pay to recover from an injury isn’t the problem; corporations that refuse to pay their taxes and lobby for increased tax cuts and benefits are.

Attacking public employees as a vague and nebulous entity also covers up the sinister underpinnings of these attack, and who suffers most when public employees are targeted for ire. Women, for example, are increasingly vulnerable in this economy and it doesn’t escape notice that many of the services being attacked are primarily aimed at women. Indirectly, this is contributing to the reinforcement of women as a second class, overturning numerous victories won by women workers and women in society in general.

For women workers:

Since August of 2008, the public sector cut 426,000 jobs, with 154,000 of those in education. Governors across the country — Republicans and Democrats alike — are threatening that there will be many more. And even though women represent just over half of the public workforce, the NWLC found that they lost the majority of the jobs — a whopping 83.8 percent — during the so-called recovery.

One of the popular myths about the recession was that it hit men particularly hard. Evidence shows that while employment certainly did decline in male-dominated sectors like construction, women were severely impacted by job losses, especially in the public sector. Some of these jobs, unlike construction work, may never return, because they are disproportionately in social services. It is very easy to cut jobs in this sector, and harder to restore them, especially with increasingly conservative policies about what services the government should and should not be providing.

Speaking of which:

Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the NWLC, points out, “The effects of cuts are likely to be bigger than just public employees, and the ripples mostly fall on women.” Childcare workers, social service providers, even nonprofit employees — all areas where women are concentrated — will see government subsidies dry up.

The  services that many low-income women are relying upon for survival are among the first in line for cuts. This will have a ripple effect. To take just one example, the provision of disability support services allows women to enter the workplace by providing outside support and caregivers. When those services are yanked, caregiver expectations are placed disproportionately on women, who may be forced to leave their jobs and stay at home to provide care to disabled family members. If they don’t, the other choice may be an institution. Meanwhile, benefits are reduced because now there’s a free, full-time caregiver available, which means that families losing an income, in need of benefits now more than ever before, are left high and dry, struggling to make ends meet. Some of these women may never return to the workplace.

People of colour, particularly in the Black community, are also experiencing tremendous hardships as a result of the ongoing assault on public employees. Like women, people of colour were already at a disadvantage before the economic downturn in terms of wage disparities and employment discrimination, except that these disparities were even more stark, especially for people at the intersections of both identities, like Black women. Limiting rights to collective bargaining and other protections for public employees directly and seriously harms people of colour in these jobs, who need these protections to fight racial injustice in the workplace.

Blaming economic problems on public employees provides a nice, broad, cushy target for people to focus upon, and it distracts them from the real targets. Instead of howling for the blood of public employees, the public and the media should be fingering the people actually responsible for our economic problems and demanding meaningful action, like eliminating tax loopholes used by the wealthiest members of society. Fighting the increasing rise of corporate power, granted through actions like the Citizens United case. Protesting increasing budget austerities forced through while taxes are actively lowered, reducing state revenue even more.


  1. aravind wrote:

    I’d been running that phrase through my mind for the past week. Class war. Class war. Class war.

    The US is better off than a lot of places around the world, in terms of economic disparities, but we’re definitely not a leader in even resource distribution. Far from it – over that past couple of decades, large numbers of us have been jamming the gears in the institutions and infrastructure that make our easy First World lifestyle so breezy.

    My only hope I guess is that we’re finally reaching a point where enough people with some Middle Class privilege realize that the systems they less obviously depend on are crumbling, because we’ve allowed certain factions to chip away at them. It’s awful that the less influential people who were hurting throughout the 80s, 90s, and Bush years weren’t able to garner enough support to reverse this trend. Ugh, kyriarchy.

    Wednesday, July 6, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Permalink
  2. abby jean wrote:

    oh thank GOODNESS – i saw that latimes headline and was too filled with rage to say anything about it. let’s make it so public service is inherently way worse paid than the public sector – that’s a great way to run an effective government!

    Wednesday, July 6, 2011 at 9:49 pm | Permalink
  3. Victoria wrote:

    That article is despicable. But: In Indianapolis the newspaper puts out a database of state salaries every year. Some, like a couple of university presidents, make pretty egregious salaries, so that fans flames.

    But the database has been useful in the past to highlight wage disparities and to undermine the argument that public workers are overpaid, instead demonstrating to the penny our surprisingly (to some) low wages, and revealing exactly how far below COLA our raises have been year after year. These public records can be used for good, for fighting back against the very ideas they’re published to endorse.

    Friday, July 8, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink
  4. Caitiecat wrote:

    Excellent analysis. I know I’ve said it before, but I’m really glad to see more and more visible acknowledgement of the class issues in this current crisis.

    The phrase I keep hearing is “let them eat cake”.

    Friday, July 8, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink
  5. raddad wrote:

    In Pennsylvania a stink has been made because the people who make the turnpike (publicly owned toll roads) work, are allowed to ride on them for free: Of course, this is true on public transportation systems every as well. It is called a benefit

    Saturday, July 23, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink