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Labor Day 2012: Stop blaming, punishing public employees


I want to share a few thoughts about work and workers on Labor Day 2012.

I want to thank all workers for the work they do. This is your day. A day to take pride in the work you do to provide for your family, support our neighborhoods, and to make our communities better places to live.

It is also a good time to reflect on how work connects us all. From the moment we wake to the end of our day our lives are touched by the work of hundreds of workers from sanitation workers, electricians, utility workers, water and air quality inspectors, public health workers, textile workers, farmworkers, food service workers, transportation workers, and police and firefighters to name but a few.

In so many ways, it takes workers to build a community.

Unfortunately, four years after the start of the “Great Recession” many workers, both public and private sector, continue to suffer its effects. While corporate Washington has rebounded nicely, at far too many kitchen tables working families face economic uncertainty.

Unfortunately as well, as state and local governments struggle with inadequate revenue and budget deficits, resulting from the avarice of the financial industry that got us into this mess, some argue that public servants and public spending are to blame.

The Seattle Times encourages this argument when it editorializes about negotiations between the state and the Washington Federation of State Employees, AFSCME Council 28 by saying, “the state should be reminded that they cannot give away the store.” While the editorial claims not to cast blame on public employees, it says the state has “twice” given away the store.

Not only does this not square with the facts, but by ignoring the facts it suggests that the wages and benefits of state employees are precisely to blame for not having enough revenue to fund basic and higher education. This is nonsense.

It also opens up the question of where was The Seattle Times and corporate Washington when the State Legislature gave away a significant portion of our tax base by adding an additional 300 tax exemptions, many corporate, over the past decade.

Further, where is the outrage over thoughtless initiatives that allow 17 state senators to stop any revenue measure, including removing wasteful tax exemptions, by requiring a two-thirds vote of the legislature on revenue issues.

Let’s set the record straight.

While Republican National Convention keynoter, tough-talking New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, has given a 3.5% cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to his state’s employees in 2010 and 2011, state employees here in Washington have gone four years without a COLA.

State employees have also taken a 3% wage cut over the past two years, 10 unpaid furlough days, and a 25% increase in their health care premiums over the past two years. According to the Office of Financial Management, the average state employee health care cost has gone up 48% since 2007.

Since the start of the recession there are 10,000 fewer state employees, which hurts our economy as well as the public services that taxpayers say they want and need.

Finally, 82% of state employees make less than their counterparts in the private sector.

As a state we cannot put a down payment on education or grow our economy within our existing budget by short-changing wages and benefits of public employees or by short-changing services to taxpayers.

We need to leverage job creation, adequately compensate public servants, and create a fair revenue system.

Jeff Johnson is President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, the largest labor organization in the Evergreen State, representing the interests of more than 500 local unions and 400,000 rank-and-file union members.

CHECK OUT THE UNION DIFFERENCE in Washington: higher wages, affordable health and dental care, job and retirement security.

FIND OUT HOW TO JOIN TOGETHER with your co-workers to negotiate for better wages, benefits, and a voice at work. Or go ahead and contact a union organizer today!