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Public servants aren’t the enemy. They’re us.

Attacking the people who provide services won’t fix what’s ails government



(June 19, 2018) — Fifty-six years ago today, on June 19, 1962, John F. Kennedy was about a year and a half into his presidency. He took a break from a busy day to greet an incoming group of 6,000 college students who were part of his first Summer Seminar Program. Thanks to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library’s website, we can read a memo in which Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. turns a welcome letter to the interns into a proposed speech for the president.

A paragraph from the memo rings true today:

“An odd impression has arisen that the national government is something apart from the people—that it is even the enemy of the people. The fact, of course, as you will soon discover, is that your government is not some sort of monster, but that it is made up of people—pretty much the sort of people you have always known in your home towns, in your colleges, chambers of commerce, granges, unions. Theodore Roosevelt put it succinctly sixty years ago when he said, ‘The government is us; we are the government, you and I.’ “

I represent Washington state’s 6th Congressional District in Congress. That’s about as far from Washington, D.C. as you can get. But in our neck of the woods, Uncle Sam is the largest employer.

Out here, the government is the folks at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard working hard so the U.S. Navy can defend us. It’s the people managing the submarines homeported up the road at Subbase Bangor. It’s our neighbors who are the park rangers guiding millions of visitors through Olympic National Park each year. It’s the nurses and doctors at the VA medical centers serving the large group of veterans who loved it here so much they stuck around after their service. And it’s the Forest Service workers who literally grow local jobs by prepping timber harvests in our federal forests.

I can’t help but wonder how such a gathering would go today, a year and a half into the current administration. What would the president tell aspiring federal workers?

When it comes to the federal workforce, this president is most certainly not Jack Kennedy.

Last month, a week after Public Service Recognition Week, the Administration forwarded a proposal to Congress slashing retirement benefits and freezing federal pay. The proposal asks federal workers to pay more for retirement and accept fewer benefits. The plan takes away a cost-of-living increase while housing prices skyrocket in cities across the country.

Conservatives say government ought to run like a business. In the decade-and-a-half I spent in private industry, I never saw a successful company attract talent by cutting benefits and disparaging its employees.

That behavior has real consequences. The government won’t fully keep its promise to our veterans if it can’t attract the best and brightest doctors to work at the VA. Coastal communities won’t push back against a rising sea if scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency can’t talk about climate change. We won’t land the jobs that come with exploring space if NASA can’t land the best engineers. We won’t build a U.S. Navy that projects strength in the Pacific if our shipyard workers know they can’t retire on time.

The only thing reminiscent of 1962 in the way this administration treats the federal workforce is its antiquated view of workers’ rights and the way work gets done.

Over Memorial Day weekend, the president signed three executive orders which undermine the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, stripping workers of protections that make it harder for them to discuss workplace issues with their managers before they become problems, file harassment claims or seek whistleblower protections. Those protections make federal workplaces more productive, and in doing so advance the public interest.

Right now, unions are under siege, and not just from the White House. We don’t know how the Supreme Court will rule on the Janus v. AFSCME case, but we know this: for the last century unions have stood up for working people. Their right to organize has produced better working conditions, higher wages, better benefits, and reasonable working hours for every American worker — union member or not. I’m going to keep fighting for that right, no matter what.

Americans are rightfully angry at the leaders in Washington, DC. They despise the blame game. They know there’s too much money in politics, and they’re angry that Congress’s leaders would rather shutdown the government than work together.

Public servants are angry, too. They’re shut out of work when Congress shuts the government down. They’re making do with old technology, and feeling the burn after a decade of sequestration hiring freezes.

But there’s a wrong-headedness in thinking that the main problem with government is the people who work in government.  Let’s attack the problems in our broken system, not the folks doing their best to serve us within it.

Derek Kilmer serves as the United States Representative of Washington’s 6th Congressional District.  

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

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