Rochester, N.Y.-- On the eve of Governor Cuomo revealing the 2011-12 NYS budget, one thing is for sure: A national campaign is now fully launched to make local, public sector employees pick up a major share of the costs of the economic crisis. But for some politicians, due diligence and hard core facts really don't matter that much-- it's only about perception. We found out along time ago that logic and wisdom have nothing to do with governing.
Years of rising spending and falling revenue have carved a path of destruction through federal, state and local budgets. Deficits and debts have mounted, eroding taxpayer support for government spending in general and for public employees particularly. In response to deep economic pains in middle class communities, major efforts are under way in New York, California and Maine to balance budgets through major cuts in services, wages, benefits and employment.
Federal, state and local governments are staggering from reduced tax revenues because of unemployment, reduced production, lower investment and the housing collapse. Washington borrowed huge sums from foreign investors, domestic big business and the rich. These funds went to bail out select businesses and to help (partially and temporarily) broken state and local government budgets.
Because Democrats and Republicans agreed last December to not increase taxed income, estate and capital gains taxes, broken state and local budgets face declining federal support. This is driving governors, mayors and state legislatures to raise fees and some taxes and/or slash payrolls and programs. Of course, some cutting and tax increases are required. The real social decisions involve what to cut, how much, for whom and whose taxes to increase if at all.
Shifting the burden onto the middle class
|photo: Ove Overmyer|
Politicians will keep quiet on the key alternative to deep cuts too-- precisely because it would otherwise alienate rich folk and make most New Yorkers aware of how undemocratic these choices really are. That alternative would be to raise the tax share paid by billion dollar corporations (they pay little or nothing at all) and the wealthiest 5 to10 percent of citizens-- it will be an uphill fight to get our voice heard but it must happen for the middle class to survive.
It must also be clear that state and local government employees' earnings were close to the national averages in most occupations. Labeling all public employees "fat cats" is an attempt to make mostly middle class earners and all social service consumers pay for what the economic crisis did to state and local budgets.
Another part of the campaign against state and local workers is aimed at who represents them. But here, too, the facts offer a more honest picture. State and local government employees are more unionized than private sector workers. Approximately 12.3 percent (or 14.7 million people) of the total U.S. labor force is represented by unions. That includes a 612,000 member decline in 2010. Anti-labor folks naturally have a vested interest in dismantling any political and workplace power unions might have achieved over the past century.
About 36 percent of public sector workers were unionized in 2010 as compared to 6.9 percent of private sector workers. Portraying public employees or their unions as the primary problem for local government budgets is not supported by the facts. It has been stated countless times on this blog that the average worker and the union that represents them did not cause our budget problems-- so why are we asking them to disproportionally suffer more for a crime they didn't commit?
Public workers are not alien space invaders; we are people of color, older and veterans
Additionally, let's consider exactly who public employees are. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission data from 2007 suggest that 18 percent of full-time, state employees are African-American, while that number for local employees is 19 percent. Public employment has reduced African-American unemployment, reaping social benefits for everyone. Because African-Americans have a higher than average union membership, attacking state and local union jobs targets them especially. Veterans are also significantly represented in public sector employment, at both the state and local level.
In 2009, nearly 13 percent of all employed veterans worked for state and local government. Also, public sector employees tend to stay at jobs longer and tend to be older than private sector workers. Our at-risk state and local workers are disproportionately likely to be of color, in unions, older and veterans.
Most importantly, state and local employees provide vital services to all. Our education, transport, protection, courts and civic participation rely on public sector workers. Over 85 percent of Americans are educated in public institutions from first grade up to our college universities. Our police, fire, courts, social workers and clerks keep all of us and our property secure. Our roads, bridges, tunnels, ports, trains, buses and security are public sector work. Our diversity and our veterans are well represented among our public sector workers. Cutting the public sector will worsen the economic crisis while deepening many social problems.
No discussion about real and serious budget adjustments should proceed from ignorance about what public-sector workers do, who they are and what they are paid. No society moves wisely without acknowledging and factoring the real lives at stake and the real effects of budget decisions.