I was a member of a labor union years ago when I worked for a railroad. I was forced to join because it was a closed shop. For $7 a week for dues taken out of my check, I made a dollar more than minimum wage and the bosses couldn't make me get a haircut.
Back then, nearly 40 years ago, substantially more private-sector workers belonged to unions than those in the public sector. Nobody complained about the benefits reaped by union workers, because the unions had fought for and won better working conditions, such as the 40-hour week, for everybody.
During the past three decades, however, the percentage of workers in unions has dropped from 20 percent to 12 percent, and that decline has been in the private sector. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010 more than 36 percent of public employees were unionized, compared to just 7 percent of private-sector workers.
Now, times are tough, so many of those 93 percent of non-union workers resent public employees and retirees, whose pay and benefits are paid by governments and taxpayers. That's because state and local governments are going broke, and taxpayers are struggling just to keep up with their living expenses.
The backlash is taking place in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states, and it likely will keep spreading. Government leaders in some states facing budget crises are proposing to dismantle public-sector unions and do away with collective bargaining. They are blaming unions, and the pay and benefits they help secure for workers, for their fiscal woes.
I know a local small businessman, and he's certainly not alone, who is angry because of the health benefits garnered by public-sector employees and retirees. He says he's fed up because he pays for their benefits through his taxes, while he has to come up with $500 a month for his and his wife's health insurance policy, and that's with an $11,000 deductible.
If anything serious happens to us, we're out 11 grand, he says, on top of the $6,000 a year for the insurance. It's not right and it's not fair, he adds, and you really can't blame him for feeling that way.
Ultimately, of course, it all comes down to the system of health care financing and insurance we have in this country. But the fact remains that public-sector employees generally have benefits and pensions that can't be afforded by most of their private-sector counterparts scrambling to make a living.
And, since times are indeed tough, many governments and taxpayers are saying they also can't afford to keep paying for those public-employee jobs and benefits at the same level as in the past.
The trouble with any backlash is that it can get personal, and therefore nasty. It gets to the point where some taxpayers blame public employees and begrudge them their benefits.
Teachers' unions appear to be bearing the brunt of it because those unions are the largest and therefore the most powerful. In our rural region, teachers live in just about every community, many of which have their own schools, so they are the most visible.
A recent New York Times story titled "Teachers Wonder, Why the Scorn?" described how "many teachers see demands to cut their pay, benefits and say in how schools are run as attacks not just on their livelihoods, but on their profession." I know a lot of teachers, and one, my wife, Susan, I know exceptionally well. When they decided as young men and women to be educators, they weren't thinking about the union, the pay, tenure or the benefits. (Actually, some did think about the pay, because it wasn't that great.) Rather, they were thinking about children and how they could help them learn, be good citizens and in general make a difference in their lives.
When they became teachers, school boards and parents wanted to have smaller class sizes to create better learning environments. Teachers could be more creative in the classroom, and enthusiastically started early in the morning, worked late and did lesson plans on weekends. Their efforts were respected in the community.
Now, it seems like some people want them to feel guilty because they get raises every year and have health insurance and a retirement plan. And that's the growing sentiment toward all public employees in state after state.
Clearly, the fact that this is happening to so many public-sector professions is a sign that our society is facing some serious issues. It is unfortunate that with the changing times and sour economy so many people are struggling to afford health insurance, most big businesses have scrapped pension plans and governments are facing budget crises.
It is also unfortunate that we have to point our fingers with disdain at our public employees because they have what everyone should have.
Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor of oneontatoday.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.