John Gage

John Gage, president, American Federation of Government Employees:

It’s a challenging time to be a public sector employee. A rise in anti-government sentiment helped propel a wave of conservative lawmakers into Congress last year, and public-sector employees have been under attack ever since.

States such as Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio are trying to curtail or eliminate collective bargaining rights for their public-sector workers. On the federal level, President Obama kowtowed to partisan pressure and endorsed a two-year pay freeze for federal employees, which only served to validate the false impression that federal employees are paid too much and do too little. The House has endorsed a 2012 budget plan that would extend the pay freeze for another three years, cut the size of the federal workforce by 10 percent, and drastically increase federal employees’ contributions to their pensions.

This growing hostility toward public-sector workers seems to be driven by the misguided notion that public-sector wages, pensions and benefits are out of step with private-sector earnings and benefits. There are many things wrong with this anti-worker stance, but I’ll name just two: First, federal employees actually earn 24 percent less than private-sector employees performing comparable jobs, according to objective wage surveys by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Second, private-sector companies have been slashing pensions and benefits for years to maintain their profit margins at the expense of working families. Forcing similar cuts to the modest benefits public-sector employees receive would only drive a race to the bottom where everyone loses.

I know firsthand the hard work that public-sector employees do. They guard our borders, police our skies, heal our wounded warriors, inspect our meat and food supply, process retirement benefits and administer grants that help house the indigent and feed the elderly. On the local level, public-sector employees are your police officers, fire fighters, public defenders and teachers.

I’m optimistic that the future is bright for public-sector workers. Most Americans still have a favorable view of government employees, especially when they think about the Veterans Affairs Department nurse caring for a returning soldier or the local postal carrier who delivers their mail.

Recognizing public service during the first week in May is a good first step. But we must carry the banner throughout the year, highlighting the critical programs and services delivered by public-sector employees that will be irreparably harmed if some folks have their way.