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In my January 2013 column, I wrote about three wishes I had for 2013. I actually submitted that column to Firehouse® on Nov. 26…and then December happened. A couple of incredible events that occurred in December 2012 made me wish that I had devoted more of my January 2013 column to one of the three issues I had covered.
The December events I’m referring to had an impact on the entire country and displayed (better than I could have ever done in a column) the contrast between the political rhetoric that occurs and the reality of the public’s feelings and observations.
The political rhetoric
In the January 2013 column, I wrote about the political attacks that some elected officials in certain states had launched against public employees in the past few years. There was a strong consensus as the economic downturn unfolded that in order to balance budgets and sustain the viability of pension systems (especially at the state and local levels of government), public employees needed to make concessions and accept both temporary and more long-term changes to their compensation packages.
Along these lines, some jurisdictions accomplished incredibly difficult goals working in good faith with the employees and their union leadership. They did so in a respectful way and did not let the challenges they were facing result in personal attacks against the integrity of the employees or management. Labor and management realized that neither of them had caused the problems and therefore kept their eyes focused on the challenges and solutions at hand. They also avoided the temptation to inject unrelated political agendas into the problem-solving process. However, this has not been the approach taken in all cases.
As more states struggled with the same kinds of economic challenges as others, some elected officials decided to take a different approach by drawing lines in the sand and essentially branding firefighters, police officers, teachers and other public employees (and their unions) as the enemy. In doing so, they made accusations that were based on twisted facts, lies and biased assertions, and then proceeded to make some very divisive public policy decisions as a result. The old political agendas that found their way into these dysfunctional political discussions revolved around:
• Anti-public employee sentiment in general
• Anti-union platforms
• Opposition to market-level public employee wages and benefits, including pensions
• Anti-collective bargaining
• Anti-public employee political influence
It is concerning that elected officials in some states have spent so much time, money and energy blaming public employees for our nation’s “great recession.” In doing so, some ugly and mean-spirited comments have been made by people who are supposed to be leading our government. They have even asserted that public employees are essentially lazy, greedy, overpaid, under-worked, self-centered, generally incompetent and possess too much political influence.
It is intriguing that these false and demeaning assertions about public employees have been made while our elected officials at all levels of government, throughout the country, have essentially given a pass to the people who we all know are the ones responsible for creating the “great recession” and the many side effects it has dumped on our economy.
The wrong targets?
There has not been one single concerted effort from a civil or criminal standpoint to hold the actual culprits accountable. It seems that there is a lack of desire, courage and political will by our elected leaders to do so.
Therefore, instead of investigating and dealing with those who were responsible for regulation and oversight – the banking industry, Wall Street and corporate heads, the mortgage industry and government officials and agencies – some of our elected officials have chosen to blame public employees instead and have even taken action against them through legislation and other means.