Appreciating Public Employees

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Events in Wisconsin and other states threaten the rights of hard-working public employees.  On Monday, March 7 the Seattle City Council unanimously approved Resolution 31271 supporting the right of public employees to collective bargaining (essentially, the right to join and be represented by labor unions)*.  The resolution also declared March 8 as “Public Employee Appreciation Day” in Seattle.

In the resolution we noted that labor unions and public employees in Seattle and around the country have stepped forward to voluntarily participate in wage and benefit reductions, furloughs, and other cost saving measures to preserve the jobs of their fellow employees.  They also assist in managing the impacts of the recession on governmental budgets, and have developed creative ways to reduce costs.

All of those steps have been taken in Seattle, and we have built a great partnership with our labor unions and employees to deliver good services to the public at a reasonable cost.  We continue to engage our unions and employees in working through issues, such as our current partnership effort to reinvent community center operations to be able to deliver more hours of service at a lower cost to the taxpayer.

The actions of the Wisconsin governor and his Republican allies in the state legislature have exacerbated the wrong-headed national backlash against labor unions. Wrong-headed because the labor movement created the middle class in America – the engine of our economy.  Labor efforts brought us laws ensuring workplace safety, and living-wage jobs, and the weekend.  The attack on public servants and their representatives is an assault on all of us who believe in a society that works for all.  This resolution affirms our commitment to those values and our dedicated employees.  The City of Seattle employs more than 10,000 public employees, many of whom are union members.

The attacks on public employees are really attacks on public service.  The fact is that government provides vital services — teachers, doctors, scientists, firefighters, police officers, nurses, laborers, social workers and countless other occupations.  Many public employees have lost their jobs in this recession, just like those employed in the private sector.

Many Americans are suffering in this economic downturn, but public employees and labor unions are not the source of the problem and vilifying them will only lead to more economic instability.   The far right-wing’s divide and conquer strategy of pitting public and private sector employees against each other is a distraction from what real economic recovery demands: to lift up those among us who are unemployed, lack health care or are not part of sound pension systems.  That’s the American way, and we must all pull together to restore our economy and make it happen.

* The right to collectively bargain is recognized through international human rights conventions. Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights identifies the ability to organize trade unions as a fundamental human right.  In June 2007 the Supreme Court of Canada (Facilities Subsector Bargaining Association v. British Columbia, extensively reviewed the rationale for regarding collective bargaining as a human right.

“Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.”

Ronald Reagan, Labor Day Speech at Liberty State Park, 1980