Public Sector Strikes Are About Aligning Our Society With Its Stated Values
In March, a union representing thirty thousand support workers in the Los Angeles Unified School District called a three-day strike to demand higher wages. The action got the support of the teachers’ union, which asked its thirty-five thousand members to honor the strike and not cross the picket line. Members agreed, and for three days sixty-five thousand workers stayed home, shutting down the school district and eventually winning contract victories for both unions.
That strike is only the most recent and widely reported strike among public employees. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that there was a 50 percent increase in strike activity in 2022 over the previous year. Across the United States and indeed the globe, public sector workers are engaging in strikes. Beyond US borders, garbage workers in France and transit workers in Germany have walked off their jobs, and government workers in Cyprus joined a three-hour general strike there. Even the UK’s National Health Service — still popular despite a post-Thatcher turn toward privatization — has been roiled by strikes of nurses and doctors.
Ostensibly, the reasons for these strikes are wages that haven’t kept up with inflation, massive staffing shortages leading to overworked and stressed staff, and constricted resources, for example the lack of school supplies causing teachers to buy their own.
But there’s also something much deeper at play regarding the role of public institutions in thriving democracies and healthy economies. These strikes reflect the tension between what we say we value and what things really cost; the persistent myth that the private sector — propelled by profit-driven, supposedly inherent “efficiency” — can do nearly everything better and cheaper; and the preference for using market mechanisms to provide essential public needs or leaving them to the market as consumer commodities.
In the face of the neoliberal triumvirate of privatization, deregulation, and austerity, public sector workers can put up a much-needed resistance. And they’re beginning to. We leaders across the board can stand up not just to support them as public sector workers, but to defend the very idea that what they do is an expression of who we truly are as a society.
We say that we value education, but the people who educate, transport, feed, and care for our kids can’t make ends meet. We say that we value health, but nurses are leaving in droves, burned out from understaffing — and private equity firms, looking for steady investment returns, are buying up an increasing number of hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes. We know that we need knowledge and innovation, but we are increasingly turning higher education into a market good available to those who can afford access, with skyrocketing tuitions, steady declines in public funding, and a generation burdened with crushing debt.
Privatization, Deregulation, and Austerity
Some basic ideas that seem to be self-evident, even simplistic, bear constant repeating. These include:
- Things cost money.
- We all have to pay for the things we value as a society.
- The money for those things will come from all of us through taxes, tolls, fees, and the price of things we buy. The only question is how we share the costs — either progressively or regressively; collectively or individually.
But couldn’t the private sector provide public services cheaper and more efficiently? Isn’t the market, unburdened by rules, a more effective way to deliver needed services?
We respond to those questions with another question, drawn from a New Yorker cartoon that shows a smiling mouse in a toy car being pulled by a large cat. “For God’s sake, think!” a nearby cat says to the mouse. “Why is he being so nice to you?”
When the private sector approaches a government entity at any level — federal, state, county, municipal — and offers to take over any goods or services through privatization or public-private partnerships, leaders need to ask themselves what’s really going on. If the private enterprise says it could do more for less money, based on the long-held notion that the private sector is more efficient, then who ultimately bears the additional cost?
Usually it’s workers and consumers who bear the cost for efficiency. And even though the initial price tags often seem lower, efficiency itself is questionable at the end of the day. In addition to being burdened by the need to make a profit for owners and shareholders, the private sector also spends money on higher executive salaries, advertising, and lobbyists (or, in the case of Ohio’s First Energy, money for bribes). That money could be spent on extending the service, or providing more of the goods that privatization took over. Of course, it’s easier to direct the money properly when people aren’t trying to get rich.
It’s also frequently said that government regulations tie services up and slow them down. But government regulations are put into place for public purposes. Curb cuts must be part of sidewalks for those in wheelchairs; food inspection must take place so that burgers don’t arrive with a side of E. coli; safety standards must be followed so that buildings and bridges don’t collapse; labor standards should allow workers time to rest and the right to organize. If these regulations aren’t in place, real people will pay the price down the line.
The neoliberal impulse is both to pare back government regulations and to move as many goods and services as possible beyond government control through privatization. For example, the growth of the charter school sector, a neoliberal success, has reduced standards and increased segregation while also bleeding public school districts of resources, exacerbating the fiscal squeeze on public education. In the end, inadequate enforcement of existing regulations shifts added responsibilities to already-overburdened frontline public sector workers.
We also must understand that, to the extent that public services are insufficient, the main culprit is the corporate sector, alongside its political allies who have pushed a tax-cutting agenda that has decimated public programs. Austerity in recent decades has pushed governments at all levels to constantly curtail what they can do to meet community needs and overcome our challenges — including racial inequity, steep income disparities, homelessness, crime, and providing educations to those living in the most difficult circumstances, among others.
Recent federal investments, pre- and post-pandemic, have made real and important progress in the face of a steady disinvestment in public services, but they still leave large gaps between essential public needs and the resources required to address them. Governments frequently undertake austerity measures that promise short-term gain while masking devastating long-term costs. For example, public assets like parks and water systems have been put on the auction block. Train lines and express lanes have been at least partially turned over to business entities that are less accountable and beyond the reach of democratic control.
Chicago turned over its parking meter system to a private company for seventy-five years, already costing itself more than a half a billion dollars in lost revenue with the contract still in its first decade. Perhaps worse yet, the contract bakes in the costs of meter revenues even if the city decides to remove them for any reason — like street fairs or to make bike lanes. Any attempt to change the streetscape will need to consider those extra costs. City planners seven decades from now will still have to factor this into their actions — the equivalent of being at the mercy today of a decision made in haste in 1948. Few other examples can so clearly expose the myth of private sector efficiency.
Coming Into Alignment
One problem with neoliberalism is that its definition of success isn’t whether a problem has been solved, but whether a good or service has been spun off from government and into the market.
But many in the United States and other nations believe that we have a greater responsibility to each other. We believe that when we say we value education, we must value it in practice — with higher pay, with respect for the dignity and expertise of educators and school staff, and by taking appropriate measures to provide education in a universal and sustainable way. Likewise, when we say that we value health care, we must guarantee those who provide it a decent living, and we must make it truly available to everyone.
Underinvestment in what we claim to value is felt most acutely by the workers who staff these public programs. They are located at the point of friction, where the rubber meets the road and our stated values disintegrate. Through withholding their labor, they can force our society to reckon with the discrepancy, and to address it immediately with material changes like higher pay and better working conditions. Ultimately, this is what public sector strikes are really about: aligning our society with its own conscience.
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Donald Cohen is coauthor of The Privatization of Everything: How the Plunder of Public Goods Transformed America and How We Can Fight Back. Cohen is the executive director of In the Public Interest (ITPI), a national nonprofit research and policy organization that studies public goods and services.
Jeff Hagan is a Cleveland-based writer and communications director for In the Public Interest (ITPI), a national nonprofit research and policy organization that studies public goods and services.
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