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Saving Jobs In The Public Sector

Saving Jobs In The Public Sector

Jose Martinez works in the accounting office of the Town of Westmoreland. One day his supervisor approached him and said, "Jose, there's a new policy the mayor has put out. Starting next week everyone has to be on the public service desk for 2 hours a day. This will rotate, so everyone has to do their bit."

"Wait a minute," said Jose. "I've got a couple of questions. How am I going to get all my work done? The public service desk isn't in my job description and what about the clerks who normally do the job?"

"Listen," the supervisor said, "you know there have been budget cutbacks and we all have to do our part so no services will be cut for the public. Joan is retiring and the Town isn't going to replace her so we all have to pitch in."

Sally Higginbothom works for a child services agency, and her caseload was just increased from 20 clients per day to 22. One Friday she was still working well past 5:00 pm. "Hi Sally," said Rachel, another case worker and Union Steward. "What are you doing?"

"I'm trying to get my daily reports done," said Sally. "With these extra clients I just don't have time everyday to get all my reports done."

"You're supposed to finish each report as soon as the client leaves," said Rachel.

"If I do that, then I don't have time to see all my clients and it's not fair to them for me to cancel them out and make them come back the next day."

Steps to Take to
Relieve Short-Staffing
and Overwork

  • Union stewards have to first convince the membership that suffering in silence doesn't help themselves or the public they serve.
  • Pick a time period and examine how the work load has changed over time. Use the job description if one exists.
  • Make a list of work that has been added to the job and work that has been subtracted from the job.
  • Track changes in the number of employees who belong to the job description during this same time period. Remember that it is not the exact number of workers increasing or decreasing that is the issue, but the number of workers in relation to the work load that is important.
  • Make a list of work that isn't getting done or is being done on a less frequent basis. If time spent with clients is suffering due to increased work load or increased paperwork, be sure this is documented.
  • Allow for any changes in technology that may have made the work "easier" to do. There may have been a reduction in the workforce due to technology, which is harder to argue against. However, many times computers have increased the work load by increasing the number and variation of reports that workers are expected to produce.
  • Are workers expected to do the work of others? How often do workers have to "cover" for employees in other departments? Constant transfers often are a sign of a need for additional employees.
  • Are people doing work outside their bargaining unit? In small offices the line between jobs often gets blurred and people don't want to cause conflict with other co-workers, but workers should get paid higher rates of pay if they are doing the work of higher paid classifications.
  • Once the Union has enough data to support its case that more workers are needed, a campaign should be planned. A clear case has to be presented to the elected officials or agency administrators and to the public. In most cases the Union should start it's campaign well before negotiations occur. Remember, to get more workers, the agency budget has to be altered. Thus prepare for any campaign to be a long one.
  • Guard against retaliation. If workers start filing for overtime when they must do paperwork outside of their work time, some administrators may try to harass people by following them around to see if they are "really" too busy during work time to fill out the paperwork. Union members must support each other.
  • Money to pay employees often comes from many sources beside direct taxation. Grants from Federal or State agencies and from private foundations can be a considerable revenue source. There seems to be a growing trend among some administrators to try to exempt these "grant" workers from belonging to the Union. In most cases if workers are being paid by the entity that has a contract with the Union, then all workers should belong to the Union. It doesn't matter that the grant might run out in a year. In some Union contracts there may be exemptions to these workers being in the Union; but if there isn't a direct exclusion, they should be signed-up and offered the protection of belonging to the Union.

Stress and Frustration

In UE there are many members who work for State, County or Municipal governments, the public sector. There are also many members who work for agencies that get their money from Federal, State and Local governments. Some of these agencies are run on a "for profit" basis and some are supposed to be non-profit. Most of them were created in an effort to deprive workers of Federal, State or municipal pensions and health care.

Like all workers, these UE members take pride in their work and because their work involves serving the public they often times put up with lower wages and benefits than they might make in the private sector.

One UE member put it this way. "I could make a lot more in the private sector but working for the Town was like working for a family. I make less money but the working conditions are better and I like helping my Town. But now they are treating us just like corporations treat their employees. There's no respect and there are fewer and fewer of us and we are expected to do the work of two people."

Stress is not only raised because of the extra work each employee is "expected" to do, but because at the same time services to the public are being cut and this raises the stress levels of the public. Often times they take out their frustrations on the workers rather than on the elected officials who have cut the services. Add to this the fact that the number of administrative people who are employed seems to keep increasing and their salaries keep rising dramatically, often to the refrain, "we have to raise their pay so the Town (agency, city, state, etc.) can compete with the private sector."

The Union's Responsibility

A Union in the public service sector has several responsibilities. One is, of course, its duty to its members. The other is to oversee the service that is provided to the public. The Union should stand for providing the best service possible in the most efficient manner possible.

This second responsibility could put the Union at odds with elected officials or with administrators. Overpaid administrators, top-heavy agencies, or in some cases graft and corruption, should be exposed by the Union in a responsible manner. This is not always easy, especially in situations of small offices and doing it in a manner that isn't just part of or seen as political in-fighting. But it is a responsibility the Union should take on. By doing this the workers will maintain the trust of the public and will be able to count on the support of the public in our struggles to improve our wages, hours and working conditions.

Finally, we must remember that while there are some politically conservative people out there who are against "public employees," the experience in UE is that the public we serve overwhelmingly supports public workers. In these times of cutbacks in services, it is more important than ever that the Union is out there explaining who is to blame for these cutbacks. It is not the workers' fault, but the fault of corporations that pay fewer and fewer taxes, and decisions made in Washington DC and in some states to eliminate or cut funding for education, health care, social programs and other services while greatly increasing other parts of the budget. The same way our members make better decisions when they are well-informed, the public will more quickly come to our support when they are well-informed.