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.


Anonymous said...

Some guys think they're tough because they call women schoolteachers names. Pathetic.

Anonymous said...

I agree up to a point Lord Copper. Public workers are indeed being vilified and are undeserving of much of the opprobrium being heaped upon them. The uber-rich have by and large escaped the devastating effects of the downturn, and in many cases, their golden parachutes have been funded by the ever generous and often duped US taxpayer.

Having said all that, public workers have as much a PR problem as well as a fiscal problem on their hands. The anger in many cases is motivated by a perception that public workers are unwilling to bear their fair share of the pain. A sense of entitlement is in the air these days. Your well written editorial does not really address this.

It is very difficult to convince the people who are paying the freight that we need to carry on with business as usual with respect to the compensation of public employees. Lots of folks are scrambling to figure out how they will pay their 2010 tax bill in the face of declining revenues. Believe me, they all have their hands out; the fed, the state, the towns/cities and they are all crying "more, more, more!" Something has to give. I recommend you consult your colleagues in the mathematics department to see if they agree whether or not we are on a sustainable trajectory with the cost of government spiraling out of control. Something has to give. It is very difficult to ask the taxpayers to keep digging deeper into their pockets when they too are working longer hours for less money. In many cases, these bill footers have no prospect of a secure pension as their 401Ks deteriorate into 101Ks or have to be cashed out prematurely through no fault of their own just to meet day-to-day expenses. These are the people inherently unsympathetic to the plight of public employees, and in the end are the ones who will have to be won over.

Anonymous said...

I am a public employee. I work as a personal aide in a school and have another part-time job. One thing that bothers me are people like my neighbors who are unemployed and do not even appear to be looking for work. They have about 9 kids and are on welfare. I know it is hard to find work as I was unemployed in the worst part of this Recession for 4+ months. It's a full-time job looking for work. But I never got anry at people for having jobs especially public workers who often work in thankless jobs. I think teachers get a bad wrap because many people see them (falsely) as glorifed baby-sitters. If they got paid as well as babysitters then the public would really be angry.