Shutdown put value of public workers in spotlight

Posted Feb. 8, 2019 by

This opinion column by OCSEA President Chris Mabe appeared in the Columbus Dispatch on 2/8/19.

When the longest federal-government shutdown came to an end, we were encouraged by the extent to which ordinary Americans realized the important functions that professional civil servants provide to the public. Unfortunately, anti-government bias has, for decades, tried to paint public employees as takers who are a drain on the economy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Public employees at all levels of government provide important public services. Educators teach our children and provide them the opportunity of education. Firefighters and police make our communities safer. State, city and county workers provide safe drinking water, clean streets, recreation, security, a social safety net and a vast amount of administrative and regulatory functions that keep our states and cities strong and growing.

So too at the federal level, where the military, Homeland Security, the FBI, the State Department and the Department of Justice provide vital services that ensure the American people are free and safe. Free and safe, for heaven’s sake! The public became, and rightly so, very concerned once planes began to cancel flights and TSA and air traffic controllers were unable to get to work. This isn’t about running a gift shop at Yellowstone. This is about protecting can’t-live-without services that keep our economy strong, our society civil and our citizens free from harm.

In the past decade, it became popular to attack public employees. In Wisconsin, Scott Walker passed Act 10, which stripped public workers of their union protections. Iowa passed legislation designed to weaken public-sector unions and suppress wages and benefits. Michigan and West Virginia passed right-to-work laws under the misguided notion that it would somehow improve their citizens’ lives. Here in Ohio we beat back Senate Bill 5, the law that would have stripped public employees of many of their collective-bargaining rights, because the citizens of Ohio stood with public workers and understood the vital services they provide.

Government shutdowns, wage freezes or concessions and the stripping of public-employee benefits do not make government an employer of choice. In fact, such tactics are more likely to result in a brain drain that could have dangerous consequences for our economy and our safety. Imagine if the FBI could no longer recruit the country’s best and brightest to protect our citizens. Or the state EPA could no longer recruit scientists to protect our water and air. Or the city’s health department no longer could find committed doctors to protect the public health.

The recent federal shutdown shed a light on the importance of the work of the millions of public workers in this country. However, the assault on public workers is just one piece of the narrowing of the middle class.

Wages have been stagnant in the United States for 30 years. The offshoring of our manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries to satisfy corporate greed has created a society of haves and have-nots. The middle class is getting squeezed between subsidies for the poor and tax breaks for the wealthy.

Public-sector work and collective bargaining provide a vehicle for people to get to the middle class and remain there.

As the largest union of state employees, we stand united as workers for a fair and balanced system that creates a broad prosperity and grows the middle class. We hope and pray that our political leaders will become part of the solution to a just, fair and free society. We hope that they return to the sanity of moderation and avoid such drastic measures as shutting down the federal government and using workers as pawns.

Balance in our economic system would lead to more national unity and less division. That is why as the federal workers return to their jobs, we must demand our elected officials govern for the people and not for their own interest. The assault on workers’ pay, benefits and rights has not been good for the fabric of our society. We need corporate and political leaders to recognize the cracks and tears in our social fabric and move to remedy them by providing a more balanced and fair economic system — one that believes in the dignity of work for all workers, including those in the public sector.

Chris Mabe is president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association.