Resist the Attack on Public Sector Employees

For a slightly different version of this column, see Jim Throgmorton, “Resist the Attack on Public Employees.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (March 10): 9A.

An attack is well underway. It is an attack on, not just public sector employees, but on workers in general, on the idea of democratic governance, and on the quality of our shared public world. This attack must be resisted.

All around the country, newly elected Republican legislators and governors are claiming they have no choice but to cut public spending in order to solve large and growing budgetary deficits.

States do face major budgetary problems, and they are challenged to find ways to balance their budgets. But it simply is not true that these elected officials have no choice but to cut public spending in the ways they have proposed. Balancing a state’s budget can be achieved through a mix of tax increases and budget cuts. Moreover, wise balancing is also a matter of deciding not just how much to cut but what to cut.

So, what really is the problem? What caused the gaps that states currently face? Did ordinary public employees force Wall Street financiers to invent fraudulent schemes that caused our economy to collapse two years ago? Did ordinary public workers decide (shortly before President Obama was elected) to bail out the Wall Street firms that caused this collapse?

The answers to these questions make it clear that “we have no choice” is just a way of silencing or marginalizing alternative voices and imposing a radical right wing political agenda.

Gutting unions’ collective bargaining rights is a key part of this agenda. Buttressing this effort are the claims that public sector employees get paid more and have better benefit packages than do private sector employees. If I worked in the private sector (or was looking for a job) and believed those two claims, I would think the situation was unfair and would be tempted to support the Republicans’ efforts.

Before extending my support too far, I would ask myself whether those two claims are true. The evidence is clear that the first is not, if one takes education into account, whereas they second is.

But then I might ask, not why do public employees have better benefits, but why do ordinary workers in the private sector have such poor coverage? After finding out that only 6.9 percent of all private sector workers are members of labor unions, I would begin thinking that workers like me receive poor benefit packages precisely because we are not organized to protect ourselves collectively.

To understand why most private sector workers no longer receive decent salaries and benefits, I would teach myself about long-term transformations in the U. S.’s economy. By doing so I would learn that prior to the mid-1970s ours was a national-scale industrialized economy, and that over the following 40 years it was transformed into a global-scale web of markets dominated by a relatively small number of transnational corporations. British Petroleum, for example.

These large transnational corporations compete with other large corporations at the global scale. Their shareholders, who are dispersed all over the globe, expect these corporations to invest their capital in ways that will maximize return on their investments. They do not care where those investments take place.

Competing at the global scale, these corporations pressure governments to reduce their cost of doing business (by offering subsidies, cutting taxes, and eliminating “burdensome” regulations), and threaten either to relocate (to another city, state, or country) or else not to locate a proposed new facility in the government’s territory. They do not care whether any particular place (our city, our state, our country) goes down the tubes. All they care about is maximizing return on their investment.

It is in their interest, moreover, to create an electorate that will passively accept the corporations’ way of defining problems. They are trying to achieve this end by, first, making us afraid (of Islamo-fascist terrorists, illegal immigrants, young black men, liberal politicians), dividing us (turning private sector workers against public sector ones, for example), and then telling us “there is no choice” but to gut environmental laws, emasculate labor unions, and transfer wealth to the wealthiest among us.

We do have a choice. For the moment, resist! Organize!

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