Compass: City stacks deck against public employees, informed decisions

By BARBARA HENDRICKSENApril 28, 2013 

My newspaper was almost more than I could bear to read these last months, too full of funerals and too many of those for our firefighters and other public employees. On my TV, all those wheelchair races were hard to watch, as one kind of race transformed into another.

Then there were the Newtown parents, their sorrow so thick in their throats I had to lean forward to hear them, as they relayed through their grief that at least their kids were with their teacher when they died. It almost felt like they could rest there for a moment, in that single, fragile image of solace: the knowing that their youngsters died with someone who loved them.

And isn't that just exactly our extraordinary expectation of these "paid employees" described lately with no small measure of acidic scorn: don't just teach our children, love them, love them enough to become their human shield. Don't just run into our burning buildings searching for human survivors, love us enough to know the value of our terrified dog, or our one-eared cat. Don't just show up on the bombed out sidewalk, prepared to work through the blood fountains and the jutting bones, but stay calm, and even if injured yourself, help us first. At the core, buried in the job description, is a promise that when the time comes, if it comes, these oft-maligned "public" employees will show up and love our children as their own.

So as I reflect on my city's recent efforts to cripple the underpinnings of the unions' bargaining powers, good faith forever redefined, I have to ask: What is our fair end of that bargain? What are the math calculations for determining their recompense on balance with expectations such as these? Shall we nickel and dime them, shave a little off those medical benefits, siphon off as many of these jobs as we can to the private contractor around the corner? What do we owe them and what we do we owe their families exactly? When a person's worst work day may result in death, how best to calculate the living wage?

And beyond the high-profile stories in our newspapers, more quiet but equally important work takes place in cubicles and paper-stacked offices throughout our city and state; public employees keep our water supply systems safe, investigate complaints of abuse, walk into dangerous situations and do their jobs. Their work is valuable and yet routinely denigrated in our public discourse.

I implore us to stop this corrosive drumbeat of disdain for public employees. Union is not a dirty word. I think public and private employees have things to teach one another to be sure. I have had the good fortune to work in both arenas and glad for the opportunity.

But there is nothing greedy or insidious about union representation. History is instructive on this issue and for those willing to take a quick look back in time, the relationship between the success of unions in achieving living wages, sick leave and safe work sites is inexorably linked to the rise and sustained health of our middle class.

I don't mind that my city wants to negotiate aggressively with public unions; that is as it should be. I mind very much that my city seeks to stack the deck and then declare itself the better player.

And that this ordinance was written quietly, introduced quickly and public debate closed peremptorily, I mind that most of all. That suggests to me that the proponents of this ordinance recognized that our community, with enough time and information, might reach a different conclusion. Time was the enemy and public input was treated as a nuisance.

Now I understand that because AO37 is "administrative" not "legislative" it cannot therefore be repealed by referendum.

Citizens, to include public employees, deserve better than this. One way or another this ordinance has got to go. If city leaders are unwilling to act, then citizens must demand a new deck and graciously invite everyone to the table.

Barbara Hendricksen is ....

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