Dec 10th 2013

Progressives Must Stand Up Against the Right Wing War on Public Employees

by Robert Creamer

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on amazon.com.
For many years the American Right – and many of the most powerful elements of corporate and Wall Street elite -- have conducted a war on public employees.  
 
Their campaign has taken many forms.  They have tried to slash the number of public sector jobs, cut the pay and benefits of public sector workers, and do away with public employee rights to collective bargaining.   They have discredited the value of the work performed by public employees -- like teachers, police and firefighters -- going so far as to argue that “real jobs” are created only by the private sector.
 
Last week a conservative court ruled that by going through bankruptcy the city of Detroit could rid itself of its obligation under the state constitution to make good on its pension commitments to its retirees.
 
It should surprise no one that the Republican Chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, is demanding that a budget deal with the Democrats include a 350% increase in pension contribution by all civilian federal employees.  That would effectively mean a pay cut of about 2% for every federal worker.  And that cut would come after a three-year pay freeze and multiple furloughs caused by the Republican “sequester.”
 
Unbelievably, in Illinois the right wing Chicago Tribune and the state’s corporate elite snookered the Democratic-controlled legislature into passing changes in that state’s pension laws that slashed the pensions of its public employees.  The changes affected all state employees and many of Illinois’ teachers.  All of them had faithfully made their required contributions to the state’s pension funds for years, even though the legislature regularly failed to make its required payments so it could avoid raising taxes on the state’s wealthiest citizens.
 
Illinois cut teacher pensions, even though many do not participate in the Social Security system and the state pension is their only source of retirement income.
 
All of these attacks on public employees – and cuts in public sector expenditures in general -- are premised on two myths that are simply untrue.
 
Myth number one.  The Right claims we live in a period of scarcity that requires extreme public sector austerity.  They claim “we just can’t afford” to pay people like teachers the pensions that we had agreed to in the past, because “America is broke.”
 
This, of course, is simply wrong.   In spite of the hardships brought on by the Great Recession that resulted from the reckless speculation of Wall Street banks -- and even though George Bush thrust our country into an unnecessary war that cost our economy a trillion plus dollars -- America is wealthier today than ever before in its history. 
 
Per capita income in America is at an all-time high because productivity per person has gone up 80% since 1979.   
 
Of course the Right is able to make the case that “we can’t afford” to pay our teachers as much as we once did, because everyday Americans feel like they have been losing ground – which of course they have.  That’s because virtually every dime of that increase in our per capita national income went to the top 1%. 
 
The solution to this problem is, of course, to change the rules of the game that have been rigged over the last three decades to bring about this result. By cutting the incomes, pensions and collective bargaining rights of middle class public employees rather than raising taxes on the wealthy, we make the problem worse.
 
But from the standpoint of the corporate Wall Street elite, that is precisely the idea.  They want to continue to siphon off more and more of America’s bounty.   And they want to shrink the public sector, because they don’t want to pay taxes at rates like they did back in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s when the American middle class was born and the portion of our national income going to the top 1% actually dropped. 
 
That gets us to myth number two.
 
Myth number two.  The right wing is doing its best to convince ordinary voters that the only way to make our economy grow and create “real jobs” is to cut public sector spending and allow big corporations and Wall Street to control a bigger and bigger portion of the country’s wealth. 
 
Unfortunately, even the most basic understanding of economic history -- or a shred of common sense --  make clear that this is categorically untrue.
 
Historically, spending by government has been a critical engine for long-term economic growth. 
 
America’s investment in universal public education has provided the indisputable foundation for our economic expansion.
 
The public infrastructure of roads, airports, and public transportation are essential to all economic activity. Rural electrification, our system of farm to market roads, the agricultural extension service – and a whole system of federal programs to stabilize the agricultural economy -- have made possible the most productive food production system in the history of humanity.
 
The Internet was invented by the American government.  GPS navigation that is essential to modern commerce, was developed by our government, and depends on a system of government-run navigation satellites.
 
Anyone who has ever been to a third world country that is ravaged by starvation and disease understands that the nutrition and health of a population is a prerequisite to vibrant economic activity.  People can’t work hard if they are hungry or sick. Government provides the public health infrastructure that gives us sanitary water, picks up our garbage, disposes of our wastes, protects the quality of the air we breath and invests in the research that underlies most new medicines.  And the government food stamp program is intended to prevent a significant number of our people from going hungry.
 
And just try to engage in productive economic activity in a society where there is no physical security, where there is no functioning police or fire protection, or that is constantly threatened by war or conquest or civil strife.
 
People who argue that investments by government do nothing to create economic growth – or that the only “productive” economic investments are made by a bunch of investors on Wall Street, many of whom are nothing more than professional gamblers – are just plain nuts.
 
Cutting back on the public sector – and demonizing public employees – has nothing whatsoever to do with economic necessity – or with “redirecting” our resources into “more productive” uses.   In fact, just the opposite.
 
The greatest threat to our economy is the shrinking buying power of everyday Americans and the growing concentration of wealth in the 1%. Economic inequality is a cancer growing on our society.
 
Fact is that if ordinary people don’t get a proportionate share of the income from increased economic productivity, it stands to reason that they won’t have the money to buy the products the economy produces.   That leads to economic stagnation and recession, it’s that simple.
 
Every economic and political decision we make should be viewed through the lens of whether it reduces or increases that economic inequality.  When it comes to public employee pensions and wages, the corporate elite tries to convince ordinary people that the choice is between “lavish” benefits to public employees or education for our kids.  They play upon the resentment that most ordinary people feel that their incomes have been stagnant for three decades to pit them against middle class public employees. 
 
Of course the real choice is not whether ordinary people must fight over the crumbs, while the Wall Street’s “masters of the universe” jet off to gamble in Monaco on their private jets.   It is whether to further reduce the share of income going to middle class teachers, fire fighters and police officers or to increase taxes on millionaires. 
 
It’s time for Progressives – and Americans of all stripes – to wake up and smell the coffee.  Without a robust, efficient, well functioning public sector, our economy will fall behind in the world and our standard of living will drop.
 
Government is the name we give to the things we choose to do together.
 
We have to attract the best and the brightest to staff our government.  That requires that the teaches, firefighters, police officers, maintenance people, researchers, clerks, constituent service workers, programmers, air traffic controllers, managers, construction workers, corrections officers, policy analysts, and everyone else who works for our governments must be respected, well compensated, and have the right to collectively bargain over the wages and working conditions.
 
It’s time for us all to stand up against the Right Wing war on public sector employees.
 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "
Jun 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " While many conservative Republicans opposed Trump and saw that he posed a danger to their party and democracy itself, they were hesitant to buck the mass movement they had created, fearing that it would turn against them. Some of these same conservatives assumed that with Trump's defeat, the horror of January 6th, and the former president's banishment from social media, the time had come to restore sanity to their party. But the GOP leadership’s continued cowering in the face of what they now call "Trump's base" has caused them to circle the wagons and purge their ranks of those who call for sanity. "
May 26th 2021
Editor's Note: This article is about the Federal Reserve, inflation in the 1970's, and possible similarities to today.
May 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Netanyahu claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people. He certainly is not. Many Jews around the world, including me, despise Netanyahu’s racist politics. As an American, I am also deeply troubled by the US government’s knee-jerk support of Israel. Fortunately, I am not alone in this view. A growing number of Democratic Congressmen, Jews and non-Jews alike, have called on the United States to stop supporting Israel’s lawlessness. The truth is that the US government’s uncritical support for Israel has come to depend more on evangelical Christians, such as former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, than on American Jews, who are deeply divided by Netanyahu’s actions. And the evangelicals’ real interest in Zionism is not Jews’ security, but Armageddon, the end of the world, which they believe will come only when all Jews are in Israel."
May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
May 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
May 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
May 13th 2021
"Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state while the city remains united."
May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."