Thanks, government workers

Nevada social scientist James Richardson often discusses “the Other,” a concept people in his field use to describe the way entire groups can be demonized.

“There’s such a thing as ‘the Other,’ the fearful other,” he once told us. “They’re different from you and me. … The animosity toward German immigrants in the period before World War II, Italian immigrants who were working hard and trying to find their place. … If you can stoke fear, that’s a winning combination.”

It’s happened, for instance, to Jews and Catholics and African Americans. And it still happens to other groups, such as trial lawyers, union workers and government employees.

Every time there’s a government shutdown, a letter to the editor commonly appears in local newspapers across the nation. Last month it appeared in the Reno Gazette Journal, and it said that with no initial problems as a result of “non-essential” federal employees having to stay home, it was apparent that they were unnecessary workers.

Last week, the Sparks Tribune ran a piece by former Las Vegas editor Thomas Mitchell titled “State public employee unions will bust the budget.”

These are the arguments about the public’s workers that fall apart as a result either of events or a few minutes of thought. Unfortunately, many people don’t take that time or make that linkage. The RGJ letter got some perspective when, as the shutdown wore on, needed services started having difficulty assisting the public because the missing “non-essentials” quickly became essential again. And with a little thought, it would be clear that public workers, with or without collective bargaining, have a stake in reasonable restraint because driving government to busted budgets jeopardizes their jobs.

We can hear some people now as they say, yes, the police and firefighters and the road workers are fine, but it’s all those paper pushers who really bug me. It’s an argument akin to the assertions that were once heard, that the good Jews are OK or the good blacks are fine, “It’s all those others who are the problem.” The paper pushers may be the ones whose paper reports make sure we get a gallon of gas from the pumps inspected by public workers, whose papers record the cleanliness of meat markets and restaurants we use and the purity of our air and water, whose papers filed make sure the companies we depend on are truly licensed. The paper pushers may be just folks on our street. In other words, they may just be us.

There are always anecdotes to undercut the notion of the majority of public workers being useful and reliable. Where are the anecdotes about when the storm moved in this past Monday evening and an army of public employees were out all night long keeping streets cleared? When school moneys run short, how many teachers spend their own money on school supplies? And let’s remember that 404 of the public’s workers died on September 11.

Yes, there will always be the ones who try to project the faults of the occasional government worker who screws up onto the entire body of those workers. But we don’t have to let them. We’re all in this society together.