“Stop the Lies” aims to counter myth about public service workers

AFSCME, the largest union of state and local government workers in the US, recently launched a media campaign, called No More Lies, to challenge the popular myth that public service workers are overpaid and have overly generous benefits.

“We aim to remind the country that attacking public services and public service workers will not fix our broken economy, create jobs or solve the growing income disparity in America,” said Gerald McEntee, AFSCME’s president.

The myth of the overpaid public servant has become the main talking point for media pundits and others who relish the idea of slashing public services, especially those services aimed at the working class.

They often cite this misleading factoid to make the myth seem plausible–  “The average wage for public service workers,” they say.  “Is higher than the average wage of private sector workers.”

The problem with this factoid is that it is based on a faulty apple-to-oranges comparison that lumps together pay for all workers without regard for the type of work they do.

An accurate comparison would compare the wages and salaries received for similar types of work in the public and private sectors.

“In an apples-to-apples comparison state and local government employees receive less compensation than their private sector counterparts,” said Dr Keith A. Bender, co-author of Out of Balance? Comparing Public and Private Pay Over 20 Years.

Out of Balance? is the published results of a study done by Bender and Dr John S. Heywood for the Center for State and Local Government Excellence.

In their study Bender and Heywood compared compensation for similar types of work and skills in the public and private sector. They found that

  • state workers make 11 percent less than their private sector cohorts; local government workers make 12 percent less and
  • even when benefits are factored in, state workers make 6.8 percent less than their private sector cohorts and local government workers make 7.4 percent less.

To put it another way, “public sector employees earn less than they would earn if they took their skills to the private sector,” said Bender.

The authors also compared compensation on a state-by-state basis, and report that in 2008, the last year for which data was available, Texas state public service workers were paid 15 percent less than their counterparts in the private sector. 

During the early 1980s, the pay of Texas state public service workers was comparable to pay in the private sector, but by 2001, Texas state workers were making 21 percent less than workers in the private sector.

Between 2000 and 2008, Texas state workers’ pay averaged 17 percent less than private sector workers.

For the most part, public service workers don’t resent the fact that their pay lags behind pay in the private sector because most chose public service for other reasons than pay.

“We work face-to-face with people and we’re not making a whole lot of money,” said Lashan Wiggins, a laid off child welfare worker in Illinois and AFSCME member. “We do it because we have a passion for what we do.”

What most public service workers do resent, however, is being used as scapegoats by those who want to justify slashing vital public services.

Columbia: The most dangerous place in the world for union members

Last May, Francisco Antonio Abello Rebollo was working on a palm oil plantation in the Magdalena province of Columbia when two armed men approached and shot him dead.

Abello was an activist member of SINTRAINAGRO, a union of farm workers who won union recognition last March at the plantation where Abello worked.

The union victory came after a contentious strike that began in December 2009 against the plantation owner, Inversiones Palo Alto Gnecco Espinosa and Company.

Abello was not the only trade unionist murdered in Columbia this year. As of September, 35 other Columbian trade unionist have been murdered. And this year is no anomaly. Since 1986, 2,729 Columbian unionist have been murdered. In 2009, more than half of all the world’s murders committed against trade unionists were committed in Columbia.

All of which leads the US Labor Education in the Americas Project  to call Columbia one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a trade unionist.

The Columbian government has been slow to prosecute these crimes and has even justified some of them by saying that slain unionist were connected to one of the insurgent groups fighting a guerilla war against the government.

However the government in 2006 signed an agreement with the International Labor Organization and the Canadian labor movement to set up special courts to prosecute murders of trade unionists.

Since then USLEAP has monitored the courts to determine whether they are doing their job. On December 22 of this year, USLEAP issued its third annual impunity report on the special courts entitled Columbia: Falling Further Behind in the Fight Against the Impunity of Anti-Union Violence.

As the report’s title suggests, the special courts have not done a good job of prosecuting perpetrators of anti-union violence. Only 4 percent of those who murdered trade unionists have been convicted since the special courts were set up.

When there are convictions, the courts rarely try to identify individuals or parties truly responsible for the crime.

USLEAP says that in many cases state security forces have had a hand in the murders. In 2006, the Department of Administrative Security (DAS) was exposed for having a hit list that contained the names of 26 unionists. In 2009, DAS was discovered carrying out illegal surveillance and intelligence gathering against unions and other progressive organizations.

The Colombian government needs “to take a comprehensive and systematic approach to investigating and prosecuting violence against trade unionists rather than treating cases individually and unrelated,” said USLEAP at its website.

In the meantime, Abello’s murderers remain at large and no one has been charged with the crime.

International support helps hospital workers help patients

They were frustrated. They worked for a children’s hospital in the laundry room where most of the laundry machines didn’t work and hadn’t worked for eight days.

Dirty bed linens and hospital uniforms were piling up at Benjamin Bloom National Children’s Hospital in San Salvador, El Salvador. The workers told management about the problem, but nobody listened. And this wasn’t the first time that laundry machines had been out of commission.

 Keeping infectious germs at bay is challenging in the best equipped hospitals; it’s impossible when you’re working with faulty equipment.

The workers were well aware that their inability to keep linen and hospital uniforms clean was a health and safety threat to patients and other workers, so at a union meeting in late September, the workers talked about what action they could take to get management’s attention. “They wanted to push the administration to solve the problems (in the laundry room)” said Marielo Pleitez, Secretary General of the Workers’ Union at Bloom National Children’s Hospital (SITHBLOOM).

They decided to do the only thing that they knew would make management listen. On Thursday, September 29, the laundry workers didn’t report to work. “The unconstructive attitude of hospital management left us with no choice but to take action,” said Pleitez. 

The workers demanded that the machines be fixed before they would return to work. The hospital administration said that it didn’t have the resources to fix the machines.

On Friday, the National Civil Police came to the hospital and took up positions outside; the workers continued their peaceful protest.

On Saturday, the hospital administrators agreed to meet with SITHBLOOM leaders. Since Bloom Children’s Hospital is the only public health hospital for children in El Salvador, representatives of the national government were also present.

After hearing both sides of the argument, a government representative told the administrators that it was the hospital’s responsibility to keep the laundry machines in good repair.

The hospital administration agreed to make the repairs and promised that it wouldn’t take disciplinary action against the laundry workers or union leaders.

The next day, repairs were made to the broken laundry machines, and workers returned to work. But the hospital administration fired five members of the  union’s executive board including Pleitez, a pediatric nurse.

Soon after the firings the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) contacted unions and other progressive organizations in the US and Canada asking them to send letters condemning the firings and demanding the reinstatement of the fired workers.

Hospital management was inundated with letters of support for the fired workers and in December rescinded the firings.  

“We are thankful for the support we received from (CISPES and those who wrote letters),” said Pleitez. “And as the people of El Salvador, as the working class that we are, . . . (for the help we) are sure we will continue to receive from you.”

Titan Tire Update

Titan Tire on Friday declared negotiations with the United Steelworkers at an impasse. As a result, the company was able to impose its final contract offer on the workers. After declaring an impasse, Titan lifted its lock out, which had been in effect for some of its workers since December 17. 

Titan had locked out workers at its three tire plants in Iowa, Ohio, and Illinois after it broke off negotiations with the Steelworkers on a new contract.

Last week Titan workers at the Bryan, Ohio and Freeport, Illinois plant voted to reject the offer, but workers at the Des Moines plant voted to accept it.

The new contract reduces the workers’ healthcare benefit, freezes pay, and imposes new work rules that include forced overtime.

Workers at the Des Moines plant returned to work, but those at the Freeport and Bryan plant stayed out after rejecting the contract.

On Monday, workers at the Bryan and Freeport plant returned to work. The Steelworkers are trying to decide what their next step will be. They could appeal Titan’s decision to the National Labor Relations Board.

Titan Tire lock out update

After being locked out of work by Titan Tire for nearly a week, members of the United Steelworkers at Titan plants in Freeport, Illinois and Bryan, Ohio on December 23 rejected the company’s last and final contract offer. But workers at Titan’s Des Moines plant voted to accept the new contract

A worker at the Freeport plant who rejected the offer said that the new contract cuts healthcare benefits, requires 12-hour work days with forced overtime, and fewer vacation days. The contract also freezes wages.

A worker at the Bryan, Ohio plant who rejected the contract said, “I think the big sticking point was the forced overtime … without prior notice. That’s what really stuck with me.”

Privatization the cause of airport misery?

You probably saw the images on TV or the internet. Thousands of stranded and miserable passengers at London’s Heathrow Airport sprawled on floors or queuing up in lines at ticket counters as they waited for information about canceled flights after the airport was virtually shut down between December 18 and December 21.

Some passengers were stranded for days and forced to sleep on concrete floors as they waited for their planes to depart. “It was pretty ridiculous, really,” Adam Courtney of Nottingham told the Irish Times. “I have never seen anything like this before. These are the kind of things that you see or hear about in the Third World.”

Some media reports blamed the shut down and ensuing misery on bad weather and poor planning by the airport operator.

No doubt, some people took these reports as further evidence that government can’t do anything right. After all, most airports in the world, including the US, are government operations in some form or another.

But not Heathrow. It is operated by a private company, BAA, which is owned by a Spanish construction company, Ferrovial. Furthermore, the shut down may have been the result of willful neglect rather than poor planning and bad weather.

On Saturday night, December 18, temperatures dropped below freezing and four inches of snow fell on Heathrow, filled to near capacity with airplanes waiting to depart.

“What is incredible is that 10 cm (4 inches) of snow closed down the airport for two days and then it operated at one-third capacity,” said Wolfgang Prock-Schauer, CEO of BMI airlines.

As the airport operator, BAA is responsible for de-icing the planes’ parking slots, or parking stands as they are known, and clearing snow from runways. As BAA crews began de-icing the parking stands, it became clear that it didn’t have enough workers to do the de-icing in a timely way. BAA also struggled to keep the runways clear of snow and ice.

Airlines, whose flights were unable to depart because their parking stands were not de-iced, began cancelling flights, leaving more and more stranded.

Frustrated at BAA’s inability to de-ice the parking stands, some airlines, whose crews are responsible for de-icing the planes themselves, offered to help BAA de-ice the parking stands.

BAA refused their help which led some airline officials to believe that in addition to a worker shortage, BAA had not kept sufficient supplies of de-icing fluid on hand.

The British Army also offered to help BAA clear the runways. BAA declined, resulting in further speculation that BAA lacked the equipment to do the job.

BAA countered that it had sufficient de-icing fluid and equipment, but the London Telegraph reported that BAA had only ten snow ploughs, compared to 14 at the much smaller Gatwick airport, and seven de-icing machines.

The lack of maintenance investment, according to Alex Brummer of the Daily Mail, was the result of BAA’s high debt load. When Ferrovial acquired BAA in 2006, it borrowed about 10 billion pounds to do so. Since then, BAA’s debt has increased to more than 12 billion pounds.

Brummer says that money that should have been used to purchase equipment and supplies to keep Heathrow open was used instead to service and restructure debt.

After acquiring BAA in 2006, Ferrovial, which will record a profit of 972 million pounds from Heathrow operations this year, insisted that as much terminal space as possible be devoted to retail shops. As a result, seats in the terminal waiting areas were torn out and replaced with high-priced boutiques, bars, and restaurants, which is why so many passengers ended up sprawled on crowded, concrete floors.

Most airports in the United Kingdom are privately operated. Airport privatization began after Parliament passed the 1986 Airport Act. When the act was being debated in Parliament, the Earl of Caithness told the House of Lords that privatizing airport operations would liberate airport management from government control and “enable airport operators to respond to the needs of their customers.”