TAKING IT TO THE STREETS
First Tunisia. Then Egypt. Then Yemen. Then Libya. Then … well, then America. I’m thinking of the protests that have been going on in Madison, Boise, Indianapolis, Lansing, and Columbus. Tomorrow, from what my wife tells me, Maryland’s teachers will be taking to the streets in Annapolis. If only they can get the Naval officers from the academy to join them, who knows what they can accomplish? From reading about the events in Cairo, I remember how important it is to have the armed forces with you when you’re staging a protest.
Truth be told, the protests here in the good ol’ US of A cannot legitimately be compared to the revolutions in the Arab world. The latter involve an interest on the part of the masses to live in a democracy and enjoy the basic freedoms associated with that form of government. By contrast, here in America, nobody is threatening to take away our right to vote in a free election, or such fundamental liberties as the freedom of speech or of religion. Comparatively speaking, the firefighters of Wisconsin or the schoolteachers of Maryland have very little to complain about.
So they should just take their medicine and thank the Lord they have a job, right? That’s certainly the Fox News party line, and it is echoed by all the big-time talk radio DJs. Frankly, the attitude was propagated in part by our President, the so-called “socialist,” who proactively froze the pay of the federal civil servants (but not the military), arguing that in tough times, they too should bear their fair share of sacrifices. But in a number of our state houses, legislators have picked up where Obama left off; they have proposed not only to dock public workers’ pay but also to strip them of the right to bargain collectively. It’s a bold move, considering that the five states that currently deprive public school teachers of such rights rank 34th, 38th, 45th, 48th and 49th, respectively, in student SAT scores. Do you think that maybe, just maybe, paying teachers a decent wage is a good idea?
Anyway, I’m convinced that what is going on here is about much more than the need to make tough choices during hard economic times. Clearly, the really tough choices aren’t being made. We’ve just been through two years of bailouts – first the executives on Wall Street, then the car manufacturers – and tax cuts for the rich. Now, despite all the talk of fiscal conservatism, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives continues to support subsidies to highly profitable industries, and nobody is even making a stink about that on the Democratic side. I, for one, haven’t seen a shred of sacrifice from the “haves” of the private sector, let alone the heirs whose only accomplishment in life is to be born the son or daughter of a multi-millionaire. Without such sacrifice, why is it exactly that the public employees should take it on the chin?
It has become a cliché that America has voted in the mid-term election, and the politicians are listening. Supposedly, what they are hearing is the sound of angry citizens, but it is worth pausing to reflect on the nature of that anger. Supposedly, the citizens are angry about our unbalanced budget; apparently, though, they are not angry enough to demand that the government raise the revenues needed to match its expenses. That’s why our Democratic President could cut the taxes on the rich and brag about it. Supposedly, the citizens are angry in particular about wasteful spending; apparently, though, they are not angry enough to demand the government to stop subsidizing highly profitable industries or fighting unwinnable wars. That’s why when it comes to private sector or military spending, you won’t hear many complaints from the Tea Party.
Now, as for the true object of the citizens’ anger, what the politicians are hearing is quite simple: that they should stop all the God-forsaken handouts to undeserving individuals. That means to stop funding welfare queens. But it also means to stop paying big salaries to the so-called “unaccountable, lazy civil servants.”
The message that I pick up from Fox News and talk radio is a clarion call. We should indeed pay the men and women of the armed forces, and pay them well. After all, they are doing God’s work – a job we all need done well. But civil servants? That’s a horse of a different color. Even if they were given important work, which supposedly most are not, the best we are told to expect from their performance is a mediocre one.
On the surface, then, the striking workers are protesting about money issues – salaries and pensions, to be specific. But deep down, they’re protesting about respect and dignity. Somehow, the critical mass of this society has decided to group them in the same category as every other dead beat who is “sucking on the public tit.” And whether you are a firefighter, a cop, a teacher, or a DMV clerk, you don’t appreciate being treated as someone who doesn’t earn his or her keep.
Personally, I keep finding myself going back to the decision of President Obama to begin the so-called “lame duck” period by effectively docking the pay of the non-military federal workforce. If he had previously been willing to fight to increase the taxes of the ultra-rich, or had then been willing to freeze the pay of soldiers together with that of the civil servants, maybe the protests in our state capitals wouldn’t be nearly as passionate. But he didn’t. And now we have a nation of civil servants who have correctly surmised that if they want their rights, they better damned well fight for them. Trusting a politician these days is crazier than trusting a used car dealer.