Labor Day heroes

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Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.

Let's pause for a moment this Labor Day to recognize some of our most important, yet most maligned workers.

They're teachers and librarians, police officers and firefighters.  They're bus drivers, doctors and nurses. Judges and lawyers, landscape gardeners and arborists. They're laborers and other maintenance and construction workers . . .

They are, of course, public employees. There are millions of them, who every day perform many thousands of the essential tasks that keep our country going.

It is they who keep our streets and highways, our parks and playgrounds safe and clean, who help educate our children, provide emergency health care, convey us to our jobs and back home, who sometimes risk their very lives to protect us from harm.

Yet for all that, public employees have come under heavy bipartisan attacks by political leaders and would-be leaders who find them an easy target to blame for the budget shortfalls that beset government at all levels. Labor costs, after all, make up the bulk of government spending everywhere.

The politicians and too many others who benefit from the public employees' services - and, in fact, demand the services – say public employees are paid too much and their fringe benefits are way too generous, especially their pensions.

The employees' pay and benefits were in most cases the result of democratic give-and-take collective bargaining and are guaranteed in union contracts that their government employers agreed to, sometimes after a long and difficult struggle by the workers.

But that was then, this is now. This is a time to make scapegoats of public employees, to shift the blame for economic troubles to them.

Public servants they were then, but public enemies they are now in many quarters, where they're characterized as overpaid and underworked members of greedy and much too economically and politically powerful unions.
Their unions are now in the vanguard of the labor movement, growing larger and stronger while other unions shrink, and becoming serious new threats to anti-labor forces on Wall Street and elsewhere that seek profit from the work of others in private and public employment alike.

There's no legitimate reason for any government entity to finance operations at the expense of its employees, whose jobs are among the nation's most important, or to deny  them much deserved pay and benefit increases.  There's plenty of money available to cover the costs.

And where is that treasure trove to be found?  Where else but in money-hungry corporate America. It's simple. Repeal the huge tax cuts that President Bush and his corporation-loving, union-hating Republican colleagues bestowed on their wealthy friends.

That would bring in an estimated $3.75 trillion over the next ten years and just about erase the federal budget deficit.  But that's not going to happen as long as Republicans retain enough votes in Congress to wage a filibuster.

GOP leaders would rather try to reduce the deficit by such outrageous steps as raising the Social Security retirement age from 67 to 70, and thus deny much-needed benefits to millions of the working class Americans who we honor on Labor Day.

None are more deserving of our appreciation, none more deserving of being honored than the men and women who do the work of government that benefits us all.

Happy Labor Day.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.