In a previous commentary a few days ago, I shared some of my general thoughts and unique perspectives on the role of labor unions in this country in response to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's proposed budget repair bill and the protests that immediately followed and continue on.
I now wish to devote more attention here to union-represented public sector employees, since Governor Walker's budget repair bill specifically targets this particular demographic in the workforce, and since public sector employees are facing similar challenges in other states.
As a political moderate, I am open to the idea that public employees should contribute a little more to their health and retirement benefits as just one of many possible avenues to shore up crippling state budget deficits. However, I will always defend the rights of labor unions, both in the public and private sectors, to exist and to collectively bargain, even though I do from time to time find myself disagreeing with positions that they take.
Public sector workers: a double-edged sword
Public sector jobs are a double-edged sword, because, while it is true that they are jobs that offer people the opportunity to earn a living and contribute to society, just like jobs in the private sector offer, these jobs and their benefits are funded by taxpayers, unlike private sector jobs.
So from a politically moderate perspective, it is easy to understand, though I certainly do not always agree with, where fiscal conservatives are coming from when they make their case for reigning in government spending to avoid out-of-control budget deficits and more taxation.
Private sector workers: always funded by private money?
But in fact, not all private sector jobs are funded by money that is solely private. There is government intervention in the private sector from time-to-time. For example, there are loan and grant programs through the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and other U.S. government departments that businesses rely on for creating and maintaining jobs. There are a number of federal and state tax credits for the same purpose. And then of course, on a much larger scale from time-to-time, we have the infamous government-sponsored "bailout".
From a politically moderate perspective, I don't hear the political right acknowledging these facts when they're beating up on public sector jobs.
Public sector workers: taxpayers and contributors to the economy and society
From a politically moderate perspective, not once so far have I heard the political right during all of this raucous acknowledge that unionized public sector employees pay taxes and contribute to the life of our economy and society.
These far-right wingers repeatedly complain about what they see as excessive wages and benefits being handed to these employees, but they don't seem to want to acknowledge that these employees: pay their fair share back into the tax system; buy groceries; frequent restaurants; sign their kids up for little league and dance lessons; take classes; buy cars; buy homes; donate to charity; invest in the markets; etc., etc.
And they certainly don't want to acknowledge that these public sector jobs (the jobs themselves, not just how the employees spend their paychecks) contribute to the economy in major ways, ways that Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, describes right on. In his column featured in the Business section of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last Sunday (February 27) entitled, "Give public employees a stake in economic revival", Still writes:
Some people may think public employees may think they have little or nothing to do with the private economy, but that's far from true. Good teachers help educate tomorrow's workforce. Dedicated county or municipal workers help maintain roads, parks, water utilities and more that help attract and retain business.
Well said, Mr. Still. Well said.
Tie up the unemployment system?
Finally, while I share many of the concerns these fiscal conservatives have in regards to controlling state budget deficits and taxes, I don't understand the reasoning and tactics Governor Walker and other governors across the country are using or want to use in order to justify and ultimately achieve these objectives, specifically on this point:
Governor Walker is threatening to lay off thousands of public employees if he can't win in stripping most public employees of their collective bargaining rights. But won't such an action further flood the unemployment system? From a fiscally conservative point of view, I'd rather see these employees continue working and actively contributing to the life of Wisconsin's economy rather than sitting at home collecting unemployment.
Aaron S. Robertson is president of Intrepid Innovations Inc., a freelance journalist, and a former Democratic candidate for the 83rd district seat of the Wisconsin state Assembly. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the views of Intrepid Innovations Inc. or any other business, organization, or person named on this blog.