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Next time public employees ask for a 3% raise and are denounced as overpaid loafers by the usual suspects, let's remember who came through last night and today to help New York get back up on its feet.
It was the sanitation workers (who pull double duty during the winter months picking up trash and clearing snow), transit workers and emergency first responders for starters. It's their work that allows the New York to run smoothly. As one sanitation worker explained to me three years ago while working seven days a week at the height of a hellacious snow season, “My parents live in the district that I work. So every street, I treat it as if my parents need to go down that street … We take a lot of pride in the fact that what we do, we do well.”
In the immediate aftermath of a blizzard, a hurricane or a major terrorist attack, workers like these are often lionized in the media as journalists look for fresh “human interest” story angles to sell to a news hungry public. Less noted is the fact that they are among the 300,000 members of the New York's municipal workforce who have been working under expired contracts for three years or more. They haven't had a raise during that time while the cost of living has continued to rise.
In the coming months, the de Blasio administration will begin negotiating new contracts with the public sector unions that represent those 300,000 workers. The unions are demanding $7 billion in back pay that is owed to them. The money isn't there because former Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose not to budget for such expenses before leaving office. He preferred instead to shower tax breaks and subsidies on favored real estate and economic development projects – a classic case of the demands of the 1% being privileged over those of everyone else.
In a city with as many billionaires and millionaires as New York, finding $7 billion in new tax revenues wouldn't be hard, but the political will isn't there at this time. So, how the contract talks will play out is hard to say. One thing that is certain is that the media – led by the New York Post and the New York Daily News – will relentlessly portray public sector workers as greedy and overpaid, a pampered elite prepared to send New York spiraling downward into becoming “another Detroit” in order to satisfy their demands.
The reality is altogether different: The teachers, nurses, firefighters, bus drivers, social workers, librarians, CUNY professors, parks workers, etc. are the backbone of the New York's embattled middle class that the new mayor says he want to fight for. They are also our friends and neighbors. Respecting the work they do shouldn't be a stretch. Nonetheless, days like these are a good time to slow down and take stock of what it means to have a capable public sector workforce and the value they provide to all of us.
John Tarleton is a co-founder of The Indypendent. He is also the Associate Editor of Clarion, newspaper of the Professional Staff Congress/CUNY, the union local that represents 25,000 faculty and professional staff at the City University of New York.