What Our Public Workers Deserve: Our Respect

Again and again, they get us through crises. So why do we treat them so badly?
October 2, 2017
Victoria County Sheriff's deputies bringing supplies into the loading dock of the Victoria County jail for both inmate and deputy use in preparation of Hurricane Harvey. (AP/The Victoria Advocate)
By Lee Saunders  |  Contributor
President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

During this devastating hurricane season, with storm after storm battering the southern United States and Puerto Rico, some people have risen heroically to the occasion.

As Hurricane Harvey bore down on Texas in late August, corrections officers safely evacuated roughly 4,500 inmates from three prisons without a single incident. Cory Marshall, who works in maintenance for a water treatment plant in Houston, used a dump truck to rescue a pregnant woman, getting her to the hospital for the delivery of a healthy baby. Also in Houston, nurses at the county hospital worked for days in a row with minimal breaks. They didn't want to leave their patients even though they were worried about the safety of their own homes and families.

When Irma slammed into south Florida in September, a Miami 311 operator named Lorraine Brown fielded calls throughout the weekend, talking to anxious people and making sure their requests were routed appropriately. "I'm not leaving until maybe Monday at the earliest," Brown said. With access to showers and food, she and her colleagues didn't see the need to go home. "We can sleep later," she added.

Puerto Rico now must dig out from the damage of two storms that struck just two weeks apart, Irma and Hurricane Maria. But the island is lucky to have people like Joseph L. Cortes Lugo on the job. Cortes Lugo, who works for the territory's Department of the Family, spent his birthday rounding up families for evacuation and preparing an emergency shelter to receive people seeking refuge from Irma.

All of these dedicated women and men work for government. They do tough jobs, for modest compensation and little recognition, which call on them to excel under often-difficult circumstances. Despite the challenges, they never quit. When disaster strikes, when property is damaged and lives hang in the balance, we all lean on public-service workers -- we lean on government -- to help our communities recover.

And yet, back in Washington and in too many state capitols, politicians are tripping over themselves to declare government the bogeyman. For the last decade or so, the politics of austerity has too often ruled the day. Lawmakers, faced with difficult budget decisions, make deep cuts to public services -- schools, libraries, road maintenance, law enforcement and more -- instead of looking to generate more revenue.

Often, they push to outsource some of these important, community-sustaining functions to private contractors. In addition to elevating corporate profits over the public interest, outsourcing leads to cost overruns, less efficiency and poorer-quality services. Prison privatization is legendarily corrupt and a menace to public safety -- a cancer on the criminal-justice system.

Making matters worse, all too often the same politicians who embrace austerity for government are zealous about reducing tax rates for corporations and the wealthiest Americans. The income inequality this exacerbates is bad enough, but it also tightens the squeeze on government budgets, leading to additional cuts in public services. In Kansas, the radical tax-cutting agenda of Gov. Sam Brownback (he called it the "march to zero"), combined with painful spending cuts to education, health care, highways and more, ran the state's economy into the ground.

The Trump administration and Congress are now attempting to follow this script on the federal level. They want to ease the tax burden on CEOs, millionaires and billionaires to the tune of several trillion dollars; meanwhile, the budget passed by the House in September would eliminate, among many other things, $2.1 billion in teacher funding, $671 million in job-training grants and approximately $2 billion in infrastructure investments -- everything from mass transit to public housing to clean-water funds.

As an abstraction, government is an all-too-convenient scapegoat. But hostility toward government is hostility toward government employees like Cory Marshall, Lorraine Brown and Joseph L. Cortes Lugo. They're not the cause of any fiscal crisis; they're the solution to crises in their communities. They are on the front lines, selflessly and courageously, when things are at their very worst.

And they're not just there for rescue and relief after major weather events. Even on the brightest and clearest days, public-service workers are there to pick up the trash, drive school buses and respond to medical emergencies. They make America happen.

Government is not the politicians in Washington. It's not capitol domes or imposing buildings with marble halls. Government is hardworking people who believe in service and sacrifice, who have devoted careers to helping their neighbors. They deserve respect, not contempt. They deserve the resources to do their job much more than a billionaire deserves a tax giveaway.