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Amy Traub

Swallowing the Right-Wing Line on Public Employees?

As Congress fails to provide the support needed by recession-smacked states and cities the New York Times today details how a desperate public sector is turning on itself, scapegoating the very people who keep our public institutions running and deliver the services we rely on. It’s yet another phase of the war on public workers.

The Times complements my observations in the Nation by noting that Democrats are increasingly falling for this fundamentally conservative line of thought:

…some elected officials are realizing that getting tough with the unions can be good politics in down economic times, as government employees’ benefits are held up as examples of excess — and as taxpayers (and voters) demand greater accountability. Gary N. Chaison, a professor and labor expert at Clark University, said some Democratic officials now see it as a “badge of honor” to take on the unions.“They see it as a way to show their independence,” he said. At a time when many private sector workers have been badly squeezed by stagnant wages, soaring health care premiums and shrinking 401(k)’s, resentment has grown…

Of course, it’s not public workers who are to blame for the squeeze on private sector employees, but the companies who are wringing generous profits from a desperate workforce. Yet we’re too busy begging businesses to create jobs to hold them accountable for private sector job quality.

It’s far easier for politicians to pander to the resentment conservatives have stirred up against public workers than to make the case to constituents for Congress giving a hand up to our struggling communities, or to raise taxes on those who flourished through the hard times. Yet parroting the conservative line gives too much ground to what is fundamentally an anti-worker and anti-government agenda. Democrats who opt to tar and feather public workers and their unions should be clear about what they’re signing on for:

There will be less pressure to address the decades-long erosion of pay and benefits for most working people in the private sector if public anger can be focused on the bus mechanic who still has health coverage. With a slim majority of all union workers employed in the public sector, the conservative class war amounts to dragging unionized public employees down to the level of contingent no-benefits workers before they can leverage their power to help private sector workers raise their own workplace standards.

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Posted at 11:22 AM, Jun 28, 2010 in public services
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