With the current Trump government shutdown mere hours away from entering its
second third week, I find myself thinking of the last time the Republicans capriciously decided to shut the government down for an extended period: October 1-17, 2013 (the Affordable Care Act battle). During that time, I happened to be gathering with my right-wing family, where my father and brother proceeded to crack “jokes” about who would even notice and federal workers are all a bunch of lazy bums who don’t do any work anyway, and take cushy civil service jobs where they can’t be fired, har-de-har-har.
I pushed back. I named friends of mine they know who are civil servants and asked: “Would you say that to X, who’s a whiz of a budget analyst for the Department of Transportation? What about to Y, who’s a highly skilled programmer in the Executive Office of the President?” I also pointed out that there are plenty of slackers in the private sector, and I know that because I’d heard both of them complain about specific people they worked with who met that profile (and yes, I named names).
They both abashedly admitted that I was right – my friends X and Y are smart, terrific, talented people who gladly took much lower salaries than they could’ve earned in the private sector to serve our country, and the private sector isn’t immune from bad workers.
But their attitude is, sadly, common. Just last weekend, I saw a woman I hadn’t seen in almost a year. She’s a government contractor who spent 15 minutes ranting about the shutdown and government waste and her ridiculous libertarian beliefs before I could successfully change the topic (and I was NOT subtle when I did it: “So, how ’bout them Saints?” despite the fact that we are NOWHERE NEAR New Orleans, and I don’t even think she’s a football fan).
Where does this insane idea that civil servants are greedily pulling a fast one on all us respectable tax payers come from?
I think it’s rooted in racism and misogyny, and more than a little envy.
Let’s start with the envy. Many – although certainly not all – civil service jobs are unionized. That means workers can’t be fired for no reason (unlike all of us “at will” workers), and they speak with a collective voice to demand reasonable benefits. Civil servants almost universally make less in salary than they would in the private sector (sometimes a LOT less), but they have high-quality, comprehensive health care and pensions, two quality of life programs that are in short supply these days.
Meanwhile, in the private sector, union membership has declined by 9 points – almost 50% (from 20.1% to 11.1%) in the past 35 years. By straight counts, union membership is down by nearly 3 million people over a period where the workforce grew from 88 million to nearly 134 million workers. (Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics) Private sector workers envy civil servants their strong unions, and the perks that come with union membership.
But the bigger issue, I think, is that civil service has, at least since the passage of civil rights legislation in the early 1960s and the EEOC suits women started bringing in the late 1960s, been a path to the middle class for groups traditionally excluded from middle-class jobs. Namely, African-Americans and women of all colors.
Quoting an NPR report from 2012:
Rivaled only by the manufacturing industry, postal and other government jobs
built the modern black middle class.
Blacks are 30 percent more likely than nonblacks to work in the public sector, according to the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education. And roughly 21 percent of black workers are public employees, compared with 16.3 percent of nonblacks.
After the civil rights gains of the 1960s opened opportunities in government, blacks began a steady move into local, state and federal government, particularly in civil servant and teaching positions. And since the collapse of U.S. manufacturing, the public sector has been the biggest employer for African-Americans.
Beyond the jobs themselves, their relatively competitive pay scales have lifted generations of blacks into the middle class.
What Republicans call an attack on “big government,” many blacks see as an attack on their livelihoods, given their
heavy reliance on the public sector for employment.
They’re not wrong. GOP attacks on “big government” are yet another example of dog whistle, coded racism. And Republican attempts to destroy public sector unions, or at least cripple their power, are fundamentally racist attacks.
The NPR piece doesn’t address sexism, but the EEOC rules that are actively enforced in the civil service (unlike in the private sector, where they’ve often been ignored until someone brings a suit, which, as we all know, is no guarantee of success) protect women and allow us to rise to high levels in government as well.
I don’t know when this shutdown will end – it’s pretty much all in Mitch McConnell’s hands now, Goddess save us all – but I DO know that civil servants are people who work hard to serve American citizens every day, and maybe they’re owed a little respect, which is pretty much the bare minimum we can do, since we aren’t paying them while still expecting many of them to work for us.
Image found here, accompanying an article about one of the hazards mail carriers face. In addition to snow, rain, heat, and gloom of night, more than 6,000 a year are attacked by dogs.
Like what you read? Follow me on Twitter @MrsWhatsit1.