Viewpoint: Those ‘public servants’ are our friends and neighbors
By Tony DeAngelis 21 March 2011
|MINNEAPOLIS - When you hear the word “servant,” what does it mean to you?
|Is it “one that serves others, especially one that performs duties about the home of a master or personal employer?”
What image appears in your mind? Is it the “domestic worker” as portrayed in Olde England? Or perhaps it is today’s “live-in maid,” who puts in more than 40 hours a week but whose household work is not protected under the National Labor Relations Act.
The idea of someone being a servant also can imply that he or she has a master. In his article in new unionism, “Of Masters and Servants,” Peter Hall-Jones traces the history of the “master-servant” relationship that began under English common law and evolved into our present-day system of labor relations in this country. Perhaps that’s why many citizen taxpayers see themselves as the “masters” of public servants, leading them to claim, “I pay your wages.” “You work for me; I’m your boss.”
Al Levin, in his seminal short documentary, “The Way the Eagle S**ts!,” argued that much of our self-worth and esteem comes from people who are less fortunate than us, from the poor, and we measure our success by the plight of others. I believe that we can also apply this argument to our perceptions of other workers.
In particular, when I was growing up in Pittsburgh, PA, the history of the struggles of steelworkers and other poor workers to gain better wages and working conditions were well-known, and the Steel City became famous for its hard workers. On the other hand, when the steelworkers became pioneers in bargaining longer vacations, other workers, rather than admiring this achievement, became envious and began questioning the work ethic of their fellow workers.
And, in recent years, public employees have come under attack for their “generous” wages and benefits. These are the same workers who in the past (when they were low-paid) were praised for their sacrifice and dedication.
Teachers, in particular, were looked up to in many communities. What happened? As part of a well-organized, ongoing campaign to destroy unions, the public (including the working class) was bombarded by propaganda designed to change the perception of organized public employees from contributors to the common good, the common weal to greedy, lazy, rebellious servants of the public masters, the taxpayers.
When some people say, “We need to starve the beast,” (government) ask them what they really mean? If they have difficulty in answering, or can’t/won’t answer, ask them to write down a daily diary over a week’s period of time. In that diary, ask them to list their daily activities, from when they wake up until the time they go to sleep. Here is a short example:
When the alarm goes off, and they look to see what time it is, where does the electricity come from? Is it provided by a public utility, or a publicly-regulated utility?
When they take a shower, who makes sure that the water is clean, and clean enough to make the morning coffee? If they have kids who take a bus to school, who’s driving the bus, and who makes sure the driver is qualified/licensed?
If they take mass transit to work, who operates the bus/train? If they drive to work, who builds and maintains the roads, and who plows the snow to make the roads safe on which to drive? And, who will sweep those streets when the snow melts and fill the potholes caused by winter?
If they listen to the radio, who ensures there is access to different music and points of view? When their children arrive at their school, who will be there to make sure they get off the bus safely and off to their classrooms? And, when they’re in school, who will take care of them… teaching, counseling, comforting and feeding them? And who will make sure that their school is a clean well-lighted and safe place to be?
If they become ill, who will make sure that they are attended to? And in the midst of this week, if an emergency occurs, who will answer the 911 call? Who will respond to a crime being reported, or an accident that has occurred, or a fire that needs to be put out?
And, finally, when the weekend (brought to us by the labor movement) arrives, who will make sure that city, county, and state parks are ready for them? Are the trails and campgrounds accessible? Are the lakes clean enough for swimming and fishing? Are the highways to their destinations well-maintained? These are part of the many services provided by public employees and your government.
So, these same people are not “beasts.” They are humans. They have families and children. They are you and I. No better, no worse. They have the same needs, concerns and dreams. They are not servants, they are public workers. So, perhaps, when we see them, we should thank them for their contribution to the common good. By the way, you’re welcome. I, too, am a proud public worker.
Tony DeAngelis is a longtime member of the staff at the Labor Education Service of the University of Minnesota, serving the educational needs of working people in the state.