Over the past year, we have seen many issues come center stage in the presidential campaign -- including health care, immigration, and women's rights -- but there is still one topic that keeps returning to the headlines: public sector employment and their unions.
The scene was set in Wisconsin: the June 2012 gubernatorial recall election. The months leading up the June 5th special election were flooded with harsh campaigns ads from both sides. Millions of dollars were spent on each side of the battle between Governor Scott Walker trying to hold onto his seat and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Walker’s same opponent from the original race during the 2010 midterm election. (However, a lot more of the money for Walker came from outside of the state and from a few wealthy guys giving generous donations. But that's another story.) The reason the recall even happened at all was because of the public sector unions. In order to improve the economic situation in his state, Walker made drastic cuts to the education budget and had an agenda to end collective bargaining rights for state workers.
This caused much uproar with huge protests around the state, including many at the capitol. What made it such a popular race to observe -- probably considered the most important election of the year after the presidential one -- is that it pitted the unions and (most) middle class workers against corporate America. Walker was only able to win for two reasons: 1. He had a lot of money available to him; and, and more importantly 2. He was able to make his opponent seem to be solely backed by the unions, as a union candidate rather than a Democratic candidate. But the problem with that is that many unions are misunderstood and misrepresented.
Organized unions have been acquiring a bad reputation ever since Senator McCarthy's Red Scare in the 1950s. Even though they have changed (mostly for the better) since then, unions are generalized as communist, power-hungry groups which only care about themselves and not the company or place where they are employed. Even if it might have once been the slightest bit true, that is certainly not the case anymore. Keep in mind: public sector workers (i.e. policemen, firefighters, teachers, etc.) mostly unionize to get fair wages and protect their rights.
Let's take an imaginary visit to a local school, and look in on a teacher's classroom. With economic downturn (though the economy is slowly improving) still hitting local and state budgets, many unfair and severe cuts have been made to the education costs for municipalities and individual schools. Funding for extracurricular programs, like the theater and arts, sports, and clubs, has all but vanished. If there are any programs left, they often don't receive funding from the school. Resources are so scarce that it has come down to many teachers to purchase classroom supplies with their own money.
So in this local school, in the teacher's classroom, we see pencils and other items that the teacher bought with her (or his) own money to make sure they are available to all their students. We're cutting school budgets to help solve the problem, but part of the problem to begin with is the lack of a sufficient education. If students are provided an opportunity to learn and have the materials they need to succeed, then they are more likely to be successful throughout their academic career and in the workplace. But, for now, teachers are paying for many of their classroom supplies and, because of that, they have less to spend on groceries and in other private sector businesses. So, if public sector employees lose their benefits and have cuts to their budgets (police and firefighters included), they are less likely to be willing to spend their hard-earned money unless it is something they actually need. They have money, but they are just more cautious in their purchases.
It should be obvious that there are still many tough budget decisions to be made in households, in schools, and in many other places. We all do and believe in what each of us think is best. Whether it's providing the best education possible to our children, or keeping our families safe and protecting us from criminals, or stopping our houses from burning down (to name a few), public sector employees always do what is in the best interest of our communities and country, not what is best for corporate America. So, please, think twice before condemning public sector employees. Sure they are paid with our tax dollars, but they realize and appreciate that and do all they can to make sure public monies are spent wisely.