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December 23, 2005

Strike Postscript: In Appreciation of Public Employees

By Jordan Barab, Reprinted from Confined Space

Well, the NY transit strike seems to be over. I'm not sure of the outcome yet, but I'm left with a rather sour taste in my mouth about a few things.

David Sirota had the exact same feelings about many people's "support" for the NYC transit strikers that I did: they fully support labor unions and workers in principle, but get pretty damn pissed off at all the messiness and inconvenience that it causes when people are forced to take some action to preserve their wages, benefits and working conditions. And then there's the silent (or not so silent) resentment that public employees often have better pay and benefits that many private sector employees who are "better educated."

As Sirota wrote:

And there, really, is the ultimate contradiction of the argument against the transit workers. You can't simultaneously argue that the workers are absolutely essential to the city's way of life, while also arguing that they should accept pension/benefit cuts. Because if something is that valuable to you, then you need to actually pay a premium for it.
"Friends" like that are only a shade better than types like Steven Malanga conjuring up the ghost of Ronald Reagan in the Wall St. Journal (subscription required). Malanga's upset about the "porcine" benefits earned by NY public employees -- outrages like fully paid health care, pensions and decent wages -- the same benefits that most American manufacturing and industrial workers earned until relatively recently:
Public unions rarely have to strike to win such benefits. The vast and growing political power they wield in state legislatures and city halls is usually enough to swing contract negotiations in their favor. But the TWU has always been a militant organization, whose leaders, egged on by the membership, seem engaged in a game of one-upmanship even with other unions.

But now New York officials should take a page from President Reagan's playbook: The MTA should start sending out termination letters to striking workers for breaking the law, and hiring a new work force -- including offering jobs to current workers, but on terms set down by the MTA.

While rebuilding the work force, transit officials could unleash the privately owned van services and bus lines, which they currently prohibit from operating along public bus lines, to protect the MTA's and the TWU's monopoly. The MTA should begin handing out long-term contracts for these operators to provide alternate, competitive services on a permanent basis.

Between the "friends of labor" who don't want to be inconvenienced, and the Malanga types who want to just fire the lazy bastards, who provides the services that are essential to the life of New York city -- and the country?

Think about it. Let me take you to a world without public employees....

Don't bother flushing your toilet. It just empties into the back yard because there are no wastewater treatment plant or sewer workers to fix the lines and treat the waste on the other end.

Need a trip to the store? Get out the horse because there's no one out there fixing the roads.. And make sure you drive extra carefully with no working traffic signals, no traffic cops and lots of people driving without licenses. Better take the gun along with the horse, because there's no law enforcement and no corrections officers to guard the criminals that had been apprehended.

Oh, and if you're water still works, save it up. Because if your house catches on fire, there are no fire figters to put it out. Don't try actually drinking the water though, because without EPA enforcers, it's too polluted to even give to your horse.

Of course, you can always put the kids to work, because there's no school or teachers for them to go to anyway. But they might as well stay home and inside anyway, because the air's become too polluted for them to play outside. Anyway, there's no time to play, because they'll be tending the garden you planted when you realized that there are no FDA inspectors to check the meat you used to buy and ensure that your veggies aren't full of carcinogenic pesticides. And, come to think of it, I'm not so sure about that garden either, because the soil's no so good anymore. Without those feared regulators, we've got lead back in gasoline and house paint. Turns out it was good for you.

Hopefully you still have a job, but good luck getting there without public transportation. Anyway, you'll be climbing over the garbage just to get to your car because no one's picking up the trash. And you better have a pretty nice insurance policy, because without anyone out there enforcing workplace safety laws, you've got a much lower chance of coming home alive and healthy.

True, you can always fly off to somewhere where life is better, but would you get on an airplane with no government authority making sure maintenance is done correctly? Are all those airplanes falling out of the air due to faulty maintenance done by underpaid, untrained workers? Who knows, because there's no NTSB inspectors left to investigate plane crashes? If you do manage to get away from it all, don't forget to take grandma with you. She'll need you more than ever without Medicare, Medicaid and public hospitals.

Sure, you could just privatize everything as the Wall Street Journal recommends. I'm sure all those minimum wage, untrained workers with no benefits would be motivated to provide quality service -- even if you could afford it. But you may have to spend an extra night a week paying your school, road, private police, private fire, road repair and garbage collection bills, in addition to the water, electricity and gas bills you already pay. (That is, unless Halliburton is hired to run the entire country.)

Of course, you could complain to your political representatives, but who are they going to listen to? You, or the companies who make the voting machines and run the elections now that elections have been privatized?

There are a couple of bright sides though: Lower taxes and no public employee strikes.

Among all of my white collar acquaintances are several who worked at some point in their lives as construction workers, dish washers, and factory workers -- they look back kind of fondly and some even wish they could do it again. But I rarely find anyone who expresses any desire to do many of the unpleasant, dirty and dangerous jobs of the public employees I used to represent: wastewater treatment plant worker, corrections officer, mental health aides, sanitation workers, etc. These are mostly jobs that people don't even want to think about in any detail, even though they're essential to our lives.

What we're seeing here are public employees who, because of the work they do and the unions they belong to, are finally earning some decent wages and benefits and the opportunity to retire at a reasonable age. So, instead of complaining about the inconvenience they've caused by fighting to keep those benefits, maybe people -- especially good, labor-friendly liberals -- would be better putting their energy into organizing unions and striving to attain those benefits and privileges for themselves and others in this society.

We'll let Sirota finish it up:

The lesson for New Yorkers in all of this should be very simple: you really value transit workers, way more than you ever thought. They ARE "essential" as you say - and maybe instead of applauding your politicians when they give away billions to swimming-in-cash companies like Goldman Sachs, you should be angry that they aren't focused on what you now realize is the most "essential" thing that your taxpayer money needs to be going to: keeping your city's basic services running, and responding to the modest demands of workers who do that.

Luckily, polls say most New Yorkers innately understand this and side with workers. But as the strike ends, those who don't understand this basic reality and who still blame workers for having the nerve to fight for their rights need to take a real hard look at themselves in the mirror and ask whether deep down in that place they don't talk about at parties, they really hold a deep hatred for working class people in general.

Indeed.

Posted by Jordan Barab at December 23, 2005 12:07 AM