Sunday, January 2, 2011
People angry at public workers
Marie Cornfield (photo from NY Times, January 2, 2011)
Today's New York Times talks about the rising resentment about the salaries and benefits of public workers. A teacher, Marie Cornfield, in Flemington, confronted Gov. Christie at a Town Hall meeting. The Times quotes her:
“People I don’t even know are calling me horrible names,” said Ms. Corfield, an art teacher who had pleaded the case of struggling teachers. “The mantra is that the problem is the unions, the unions, the unions.”
I think the time has come for some sorting out.
Our economy is bad and people are hurting - a lot. Folks are losing their homes and jobs, limiting their experiences and curtailing their dreams.
In such economic times, those with steady, public jobs are held up to public inspection. What seemed like a modest salary in better times, all of a sudden looks pretty good.
When I was young and thinking about teaching, some people thought I should choose law or business because they saw me as a talented student. I was called to public service, however, and I haven't regretted it ever since. In 32 years of teaching, I have learned so much from my talented colleagues in all disciplines and like to think that I've touched quite a few of my students' lives.
But that's not what this is about - it's about money.
The Times says that even with benefits calculated in, school teachers make the same or slightly less than private sector employees with similar educational levels.
The difference is that the public workers have more secure jobs.
So all of a sudden, there is a focus on the worst educators and why, in this terrible time of economic difficulty, the lowest performing members of my profession have a job when the public feels they shouldn't. To respond, the New Jersey Education Association has proposed changes to the process of tenure to ensure that failing educators can be more easily separated from a district. Tenure is not a "job for life," but the right to due process. Well, it just got easier to remove an educator from his/her position when the job isn't being done properly. This is in everyone's best interest.
But, in the end, I believe that it's not about tenure or other educational or public service issues, it's about money.
During hard times, people get angry and right now, they are angry at teachers, cops and firefighters.
But think again.
Does a person who has somehow survived a career of running into burning houses deserve a secure old age?
Does the police officer who has stood between you and crime in a torrent of bullets deserve the support of the public sector?
Have teachers, who have spent a career nurturing the minds of our community's children, earned a modest pension?
I would say they have. These are public workers whose employee is the state and the towns where they work. They have been doing a good job serving the public and they went into these jobs with the expectations that the rules wouldn't dramatically change once they reached mid career.
True, the financial picture is one that nobody had predicted and new decisions have to be made, with all stake holders sitting together.
Do we value the continuity of our children's' education?
Do we cherish our safety, security from crime, fire or ignorance enough to step up and honor our agreements?
Do we recognize that the anger the public is feeling is due to the feelings of loss and fear in this economic climate and not due to a true dissatisfaction with the service public workers have and will provide?
In the attempt to cut budgets, public workers are being vilified, not because they have failed to serve nobly, but because revenue is sought.
I find it curious that the public is angry at modest wage earners instead of the fabulously wealthy among us. I do not question anyone's right to hard-earned money, but there are notable cases of wealth that is ill gained.
Perhaps, we might look at why we are having these economic difficulties and what we might do in the future to prevent them. Easy money is not what public servants get. Quick bucks and shaky investments that have gone bad have brought us to this place.
Now, we are all trying to dig ourselves out. We must remember that we are all citizens trying to run communities and our public workers keep us safe and smart. They have earned our support, respect and collaboration.