OPINION | Workers rise or fall together


It’s no surprise that president wannabe Tim Pawlenty urged governments to take on their unionized employees in Monday’s Wall Street Journal.  He wants government to lead a race to the bottom that’s bad for our economy and bad for the entire working class.  In Minnesota, it’s unionized public workers who come to the rescue when victims of the poor economy need help.  We’re the life preserver for workers who are losing their jobs, their homes and their health care. 
We’re the blue-collar workers who take care of South St. Paul, while Gov. Pawlenty cuts his hometown.  We keep motorists safe, while he lets their bridge collapse.  We feed grandma, while he forces her nursing home to close.  We staff the emergency rooms, while he cuts hospitals to the bone.  We help minds soar, while he crowds classrooms, hikes tuition and closes libraries.  We do our jobs, while he leaves Minnesota to crusade for his next job. 
Hot on the campaign trail, Pawlenty blames us for his budget mess.  He writes, “Unionized public employees are making more money, receiving more generous benefits and enjoying greater job security than the working families forced to pay for it with ever-higher taxes, deficits and debt.”  
Let’s bust the myths behind Pawlenty’s propaganda.
Myth: Compensation for public employees is the cause of the state’s deficit.  In fact, if Gov. Pawlenty fired all state employees, the cost savings would erase only 21 percent of the state’s $6.2 billion budget deficit.
Myth: Public employees are overpaid.  In fact, AFSCME Council 5 is a union of 43,000 public and non-profit workers, who earn $38,000 a year on average.  Most of us are struggling paycheck to paycheck with frozen wages, just like the average Minnesota worker who also earns $38,000. 
Myth: Public employees earn more than private-sector employees.  In fact, public workers in Minnesota earn 4 percent less than their counterparts in the private sector, when matched by education and experience.  That’s because public workers have sacrificed wages for better benefits.
Myth: Public pensions are extravagant.  In fact, AFSCME retirees have modest pension benefits of about $13,000 a year.  Combined with Social Security, it’s the difference between dignity and poverty.  Ninety percent of retired public workers stay in Minnesota; their pensions fuel the local economy and keep seniors self-sufficient.
Myth: Public employees drag down the economy.  In fact, public employees buy necessities, not luxuries, and that’s the kind of spending that will pull Minnesota out of this consumer-driven recession.  Every time Gov. Pawlenty cuts a public employee’s job, Main Street loses a customer.  As more stores shutter their doors, the last thing we need is more layoffs.
Myth: Public employees are lazy.  Minnesota’s state workforce is the 10th leanest and one of the most productive in the nation.  Minnesota has 71 public workers for every 10,000 residents, according to the U.S. census.  We’re tied with conservative Florida.
Myth: Government is growing.  In fact, our state government is shrinking.  Yet middle-income taxpayers are frustrated that they’re paying more and getting less.  That’s because they’re subsidizing tax breaks for the richest Minnesotans.  The wealth of Minnesota millionaires has doubled under the Pawlenty administration, as their state and local tax rates have decreased by 4 percent.
Pawlenty marches lockstep to the drumbeat of cheap-labor conservatives, who pit private workers against public workers.  Their real agenda is to strip all workers of their wages, benefits and retirement.  They want to gut the essential public services that workers need, while protecting Wall Street and greedy CEOs.  Their failed plan puts the rich in lifeboats as everyone else sinks. 
All workers deserve the benefits that unionized public workers enjoy.  When people work union, they live better.  That’s why AFSCME advocates for ALL WORKERS – not only our members.  We strive for a Minnesota where all labor is rewarded with wages that can raise a family, health care if people get sick, and a retirement that’s dignified. 
Workers rise or fall together.  People who pit private workers against public workers are trying to divide and destroy the working class.  We must recognize our common interest and stand together to fix the mess created by corporate greed.
Eliot Seide is executive director of AFSCME Council 5, Minnesota’s largest union of public employeees.