Archive for August, 2008

Proud to be a state employee!

August 7, 2008

Take a moment to consider the current state of the state of our nation and California: a systemic budget crisis that promises to be ongoing for at least the next few years. Every year we go through the painful process of once again having to cut social programs, as if we aren’t doing enough. As if we didn’t have huge problems in our society: millions with no or wholly inadequate health insurance; millions unemployed and underemployed; a crumbling infrastructure; hunger in a wealthy land; universities turning away students; the young joining the military for “opportunity.” Working people are struggling like it was the 1890s.

For me, the most demoralizing aspect of all this is the disrespect afforded state employees. Follow the online paper in the state’s capital (the Sacramento Bee). Read any political story and then read the public discussion by the readers in the “Comments” space. Inevitably more than a few go off against us “lazy, privileged, pampered, etc.” state employees. We are the problem, don’t you know. Oh, and don’t forget their lousy (all too powerful) unions. I only wish we had a quarter of the power proscribed to us. Sort of like the way the Democrats are described in the media as “controlling” the state legislature. (Everyone knows that money is power. The Dems may have a majority but in this state it takes two thirds to control the money, so who has the power? Oh, and why don’t we have a budget yet?)

We can examine why the need for a scapegoat. After all, it’s an easy way out of seemingly intractable problems. But why state employees? There’s no doubt that some state employees are next to worthless, going along to get along and taking advantage of us all. But is it fair to characterize them all this way? Hardly. Every sector has its freeloaders, but there is this concept in economics called “socially necessary labor” in determining the value of something and along with that comes the idea that it all evens out. In other words, for every bum on the dole there are type A’s like me carrying their weight — and some.

In this case, the scapegoating of state employees is done because it works as a way of getting what you want while avoiding a real discussion of means and ends, values and priorities. Throw the bums out, and while you are at it, bring in the business leaders who really know how to run things to follow the “free” market and make it more “efficient.”

One problem with this is it just isn’t true. There is a strong empirical case to be made that state employees are very efficient. Look at just two pieces of evidence. Arnold made a campaign promise to root out and terminate waste in California government. Only his commission, The California Performance Review <http://cpr.ca.gov/report&gt;, didn’t find much in the way of corruption or excessive waste. (Oh, they do make many viable suggestions to save the state 32 billion dollars over the next five years but the gov’ seems to have little interest in making these changes come about. Election time is over, I guess, but didn’t I hear something about a budget crisis?) Plus, when you compare just the number of state employees to population, California has one of the better ratios in the country, not to mention our high level of services that most states can’t even approach. Despite it’s strength, this evidence will not convince. People are not going to give up their easy out, and there are powerful interests that benefit from their promotion.

Besides, there are plenty of examples of historic precedent. Look at the attack on labor post the New Deal. There were the reactionary legislative attacks with Taft-Hartley and [tk]—damaging sure, but those were just the nails in the coffin. What built the coffin was an attack on the people of labor. Equating labor leaders with the world communist conspiracy was a stroke of genius. Along with the entertainment industry, labor was purged of anyone with the slightest hint of progressive values. Labor still struggles with that damaging legacy.

I could give some advice to the reactionaries who worship the “free” market, who would have us return to the heyday of American Federalism (their idea of democracy, one that limits empowerment to a few) when negroes were three fifths of a human, if that, and women were in their place—barefoot and pregnant and certainly not in the voting booth let alone elected office. The advice is this: Don’t attack the Social Security Insurance program if you want to dismantle it, attack the people who run it, or, better yet, attack the bums who live off it. Attack those who didn’t “work hard enough” or didn’t “invest” in some miracle stock to ensure their easy retirement. It’s their own fault they are not rich. (It goes without saying, shouldn’t everyone be?) Attacks on a program that works, that keeps many elderly out of retirement poverty just aren’t going to be as effective. (Not to mention the other aspects of the program that pool risk and provide benefits way beyond retirement.)

So we arrive at today. We are public employees at a great public institution. And that’s the problem. Haven’t you heard? Since the Ray-gun Revolution everything run publicly is suspect: inefficient, downright un-American. When the University of Phoenix attacks public higher education there’s charges of “unfair competition.” When it wants to lower all higher education standards so that they can increase their profit margin with more widgets produced (a.k.a. graduates) who gains really? These attacks have traction because of the groundwork laid—after all, they are public institutions staffed by state employees (need I say more?).

There was great vision and sacrifice (bi-partisan, I might add) to create the higher education system that has without doubt fed California’s world leadership. Now our problems are daunting because we live in an eternal present. Investment in the future? Who’s going to pay for that? God forbid we should even look to the future, let alone invest in it for someone else’s benefit (like our children and their children and their children, etc.).

I’m fond of telling people that I’m a very lucky man, doubly blessed. As a labor leader and employee in the CSU, not only do I get to daily defend workers rights to be full Americans in the workplace (you know, with rights such as free speech and assembly that workers in the “more efficient” private sector leave at the door), I’m a public employee both working at and defending a public institution that added greatly to the richness of my life (more quality but some quantity too) and to that of an already rich state and country. To condense my point: I’m a proud state employee. And if you work for the state, you should be too.

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