Careers in public service are not about building wealth
Scott Bauer, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — My father was a government employee for more than two decades beginning in the late 1930s, when he helped advance the cause of public health in no small measure. It was a nation still living in the 19th century in many ways, and he and his colleagues' contribution to solving infant mortality alone was enormous. They broke through the barriers of politics that protected a primitive agrarian culture, cleaning up the nation's milk supply and instituting new techniques for guarding its food.
Throughout that period, my father was overworked and underpaid, sacrificing time with his family for the greater good. When that ended, he took nothing with him but his then-meager Social Security benefits; no government pension, no health insurance, only the pride of having done a good job. I'm sure he considered himself lucky to be able to put a nutritious meal on the table for his family and educate his children in times far worse than these.
As I watched the failed attempt by Wisconsin's public employee unions, backed by the national labor movement, to oust Gov. Scott Walker, I thought about how my father would have reacted. My educated guess was that he would have been appalled by what he would have considered a gross example of greed over service from those who are supposed to be working for the benefit of all the state's citizens. He would have seen the Walker recall effort as an attempt to overthrow a legitimate election because of policy differences.
Walker originally won election by promising to rescue his state from the edge of bankruptcy — and proceeded to do so. Much of the success was by bringing down the cost of public employment. The disparities between what Wisconsin's public employees contributed to pension and health care costs and what private workers contributed were sizable.
My father was from an era when public service still was considered a high calling. He was wise enough to know that his expertise was worth more than he was being paid and that public employees needed to be treated better, particularly teachers and first responders.
But one didn't grouse about how unfair that chosen life was. Jobs were so precious that no more than one person in a family was permitted to hold a federal position. Would he have liked more money? Of course, but he had taken a job he believed in and accepted its drawbacks. When it was done, he took a private position and negotiated on his own behalf.
While my father understood well the concept of unionism and the need for it sometimes, he didn't believe it had a place in government service financed by a hard-working electorate that might be held hostage by the political threats of those they had hired.
On the other hand, he didn't favor right-to-work laws. If Walker, who has backed right-to-work laws in the past, had made it an issue in the recall election, he would have lost, most analysts agree.
Whatever impact the Wisconsin vote will have on the ultimate outcome of November's presidential and congressional elections is the subject of extended speculation. Would the Republicans have been better off with the issue and not the victory? Is this a harbinger of further bad times for organized labor, or will this galvanize the institution into renewed efforts to hold off what they see as a spreading effort to undo decades of hard-fought gains?
Take your pick. Some of that toothpaste already has been squeezed out of the tube and can't be restored. Union membership has been in decline for years, with local, state and federal government workers making up the largest percentage remaining.
It seems to me that what has occurred in Wisconsin and in California cities like San Jose and San Diego, where public pay has been reduced, and in states like Indiana and Ohio, where negotiations are underway for relief from the demands of government workers, has been brewing for some time. The economy being what it is merely sped up the dissatisfaction.
My father would not have been surprised. He understood that his service was for something other than getting wealthy.
E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at firstname.lastname@example.org.