The deepening of economic woes inevitably contributes to an increase in social and political faultlines. This increase is particularly marked when it comes to workers; union are pitted against nonunion, for example, and public employees are pitted against private personnel. It creates a crab in a pot world for workers struggling for fair rights and safe working conditions, where success for one group of workers is viewed as grounds to try to pull them back down into the milling fray again, rather than allowing them to escape the pot, perhaps lead the way out of the pot, create a world where no one at all is scrabbling around in a pot for scraps.
Particular tensions seem to surround public workers, many of whom also belong to unions. There’s a reason public employees tend to join unions, and why government agencies are often union workplaces; it was a hard-fought battle. These unions protect the rights of public employees, because they are first on the line when it comes to budget cuts. They work in environments where potential abuses of workers are myriad; the social worker asked to take on a slightly higher caseload just to take care of things for a few months, the garbage worker forced to work over time, the ranger ordered to take on a patrol area to make up for a shortage of employees.
Public employee unions play an important role in protecting workplace safety, being aggressive about wages and benefits, and ensuring that even as people serve the government, and the rest of the population, they are not exploited. For that matter, these measures also benefit the general public by ensuring that people responsible for health and safety aren’t overworked and tired. The hard-won union deals, including things like health care and pensions, are the result of much negotiation and discussion, pressure from government agencies, attempts to weasel out of contracts and deals. Public employees have fought very hard for what they have, and continue to fight to protect it, because there are always wolves nipping at their heels.
Yet, public workers are increasingly framed as the enemy. Private employees resent their vacation time, their pensions, their access to health care. Instead of asking why these benefits are not universal, they demand to know why public workers have them. They’re changing the shape of the debate and pushing it in precisely the direction those in power want it in; instead of demanding benefits for themselves, people are attacking benefits held by some workers. They are shifting the direction of things from a world where benefits should be a default with all employment to a place where employees with benefits are attacked because clearly they shouldn’t have them.
When public workers strike to defend their benefits and raise awareness about cuts and the impact of exploitation, private sector workers scream at them. People complain, for example, about the lack of garbage pickup when municipal workers choose to strike. Call the garbage workers lazy and demand to know when their services will be returned; they don’t pressure agencies to reach a deal with the strikers, to give or restore their benefits, they insist that those bin men should get back to work already because the garbage is piling up and it’s disgusting and it’s a nuisance. Workers striking for fair pay and wages, for their employers to live up to the promises they made, are a nuisance, and should go away. These are the messages being sent by responses to public sector strikes.
Those in power love this, and they’re careful to artfully distribute propaganda to encourage it. They want people thinking of public workers as the enemy because this is how they escape closer examination and discussion. If everyone is too busy screaming about ridiculous pension packages to support public sector workers in retirement, they can’t ask why they themselves don’t have the same packages. If people are calling paid vacation for government employees wasteful and disgusting, they don’t stop to take the time and ask why it is that any vacation or sick days they are allowed are unpaid, and they get only a scant number of year before they run the risk of getting in trouble. People yelling about luxurious health care packages for public employees don’t ask they they don’t have similar packages, or better yet, why there’s not a national single payer health care system to ensure that everyone, regardless of employer, gets access to the same standard of care.
Public workers are not the enemy, any more than private employees working in unions. People working in solidarity with each other can support their movements for better working conditions and pay; joining public sector workers in strikes to support their demands, for example, lays the groundwork for support in the future to demand better wages for private employees who don’t have the protection of the union. Showing people in power that workers aren’t going to tear each other down in response to propaganda any more, but instead are going to join hands, form a chain, and pull everyone out of the pot together, sends a clear and inescapable message.
Is it a message workers are ready to send? Increased strike activity and discussion about working conditions and wages seems to indicate that some people are interested in connecting the dots and shaping a new world for workers and employment actions. It remains to be seen whether people can overcome the propaganda they’re fed about public workers to stand in solidarity with them instead of targeting them with their rage; we can be unstoppable if we work together, or we can collapse into an easily-picked off pile that allows the wealthy to maintain their money and power while the rest of us scrabble for crumbs.