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A plea for fair play for public employees

April 01, 2011|By ALLAN POWELL

A constellation of events has brought attention to the plight of millions of public employees who are being asked to carry an uneven and unfair burden as a means to balance state and county budgets. Some governors want to go further and reduce or remove the right of collective bargaining. These extremes are pursued vigorously even when teachers, police, firefighters and other public employees have been willing to take cuts in pay and other benefits to help make it through the current financial crisis.

Our daily newspapers report of police being injured in high-speed chases and being shot on duty, and of firefighters being burned while trying to save homes, and show pictures of teachers and public employees protesting in the bitter, cold weather to protect what was agreed to in open negotiations. This raises questions of fair play. Why should these budgets be balanced primarily at a cost to middle- and working-class citizens while giving tax cuts to the very wealthy? Produce one case of a cut in the pay of state or federal legislators who are behind these moves. Show even one reduction in their benefits.

Please permit some mention of some experiences close to home that might well be typical of events across the country. When I began teaching here in 1951, I had only 12 hours of college credits beyond a master’s degree. Starting pay was low, and was once a month for nine months. We were prepared to work on construction and other jobs. The Board of Education had several paint crews made up of male teachers who depended on these jobs for summer income.

Once, I made a point of this to a Republican County Commissioner. His reply was quick and blunt: “If you want more money, get out of teaching.” He and other commissioners were equally speedy in bragging to prospective teachers about the great retirement plan that compensated for low pay. When there is an economic downturn, politicians waste little time reducing both benefits — including retirement plans of public employees. By way of passing, public employees contribute to their retirement, and discussion is only about percentage of payment. Some play hardball, but they don’t play fair.

After 41 years in education, there are no regrets about my decision not to get out of teaching. I was fully aware of the low-pay situation but still wanted to be a teacher. The first half of those years took a strong will to continue. Part-time and, at times, full-time side jobs were needed to make ends meet. For more than a year, I managed the Prospect Diner for long hours at night.

For another year, I washed and cleaned buses at the Blue Ridge bus garage near the ballpark. I must have been a sight for sore eyes with a face covered by a handkerchief while sweeping under bus seats. For another two years, there was a full night shift at Fairchild. This was a major trial, but it had to be done.

This is only a small portion of the story, but it is enough to show why there is justifiable resentment at hearing a politician rant about public servants raiding the public treasury. They seldom tell the public about the continuous cost of maintaining professional demands. For 14 years, I traveled to College Park and back to earn 72 more credit hours of post-graduate study to be prepared for subjects I would teach. Pay raises were strictly tied to experience and college course credits.

At age 85 and still active in academic and public affairs, I find it offensive to hear politicians make unfair and even reckless charges about the greedy demands of public servants. How many politicians do we know who would stoop to ride on a firetruck in sleet or snow to save a home or a child? How many politicians would do any of the dirty, tedious and dangerous tasks that public servants face every day? Our fervent hope is that public employees will stand tall and hold their ground during this crisis.

When I was working as a laborer for Bester-Long, back in the summer of 1953, when the airport runway was being extended, there was no political figure worried about more pay. When I was employed as a plumber’s helper the next summer, there was no interest in improving pay rates. But, if there is one time when history repeats itself, it is when politicians want to shift the load in a financial crisis. “Fair play” is not a part of their vocabulary.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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