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Lee Saunders

An era of scorn for our public sector workers

In 1932, a group of Wisconsin state employees banded together to defend their rights, pushing back against a corrupt system that rewarded friends of politicians with public service jobs.

That was the beginning of the formation of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. I am proud to serve as president of AFSCME, where we represent 1.6 million women and men – from bus drivers to sanitation workers to emergency medical technicians – who never quit working to serve their communities.

Even as our union has grown, we contend with adversaries trying not just to hold down our members’ pay and benefits but who fundamentally denigrate and disrespect their work.

Their scapegoating of public workers has reached a fever pitch. Around the country, right-wing politicians, underwritten by corporate interests, are going after the rights and the economic security of those who work for the public good. They are not just trying to knock us down; they want to take us out.

Nowhere has that been more true than in Wisconsin, which led the efforts to take away the hard-won employment rights of public workers.

What Wisconsin’s legislature and governor did was only the beginning. Last month in Iowa, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad signed a bill gutting government employees’ collective bargaining rights. The new law, which AFSCME’s Iowa affiliate is challenging in court, means that most of Iowa’s state and local public workers may only negotiate their base wages. They no longer can bargain over benefits such as health insurance, transfers and layoffs, or in evaluation and grievance procedures.

Illinois Republican governor, private-equity billionaire Bruce Rauner, has made it a top priority to kick public workers to the curb. Rauner tried to force-feed our state members an unacceptable contract that includes a four-year wage freeze and a 100 percent increase in health-care premiums.

Now the presidency of Donald J. Trump has ushered in a fresh wave of withering attacks on public employees at the federal level. Only days after taking the oath of office, Trump imposed a federal hiring freeze. And a new bill moving through Congress would eviscerate civil-service protections, making it easier to fire career government employees without due process. The president’s proposed budget is so austere that, according to The Washington Post, it would expedite “a historic contraction of the federal workforce.”

Trump’s proposed cuts to low-income housing, environmental protection and international diplomacy would affect the livelihoods of federal workers and the people they serve. For example, the U.S. Labor Department would be cut by more than one-fifth, with negative implications for job training, wages, occupational safety and more.

Then there is the issue of ill-advised privatization. Last summer, the Obama administration announced the federal government would no longer contract with private prison companies. But the new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, reversed that decision last month.

Trump has taken every opportunity to smear those who devoted their careers to the public interest, attacking the intelligence community and disparaging data generated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We have seen this in his campaign promise to “remove bureaucrats who only know how to kill jobs,” echoed in White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon’s talk of “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

Public employees don’t expect to get rich, but some respect for the important jobs they do isn’t too much to ask. Instead, in too many states and localities – and now more than ever at the federal level – their hard work is met with scorn. Not from their neighbors, but from politicians with an agenda.

When you attack public workers, entire communities suffer – their schools, hospitals, roads and more. To undermine law enforcement, social workers and 911 dispatchers, and their counterparts at every level of government, is to hurt the citizens who depend every day on the services they provide.

Lee Saunders is the president of AFSCME. A longer version of this article appeared on on March 23.