Defending and Expanding the Public Sector Benefits Us All

This op-ed appeared in the Burlington Free Press on March 10, 2011

In the past weeks, anti-worker Republicans have bared their teeth. Republican leader Boehner’s budget proposal in Congress, and attempts by Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio to roll back the basic human right for public employees to organize, demonstrate clearly that their agenda is not simply one of “fiscal conservatism.” Instead, it is a highly ideological attack on many of our fundamental human rights. Leaving in place the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, Republicans — and many Democrats — are using the deficits created by those tax cuts to not only attack programs for the most vulnerable, but also to attack women’s reproductive health and prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from acting on climate change and the Federal Communications Commission from protecting net neutrality.

Vermont can be proud that many of our elected officials have stood up against this dangerous agenda. Senator Bernie Sanders galvanized people across the nation with his 8 1/2 hour “Filibernie” in December, and our state is poised to be the first to truly solve the healthcare crisis, supported by a strong grassroots movement around the state demanding Healthcare Is a Human Right. However, the state of Vermont is not immune from pressures to punish poor and working people for a fiscal crisis we did not create. As detailed in the “People’s Budget Report” issued by the Vermont Workers’ Center in December, the state budget falls short of meeting our government’s obligation to protect the most vulnerable.

It is always easiest for those in power to pick on the less powerful, or to set them against each other. It is easier to pit local taxpayers against teachers — as the South Burlington school board is doing right now — than it is to face up to the fact that the only just and sustainable way to finance education is through a progressive income tax and push the legislature to act on that. Our legislature found the “courage” last year to raise taxes on cash-strapped arts organizations, yet cannot contemplate raising revenue from those who can well afford to contribute more: those with the highest incomes, who have received tax break after tax break at the federal level.

A strong and vibrant public sector is crucial to democracy, and to strong communities. If everything in our lives is controlled by for-profit corporations, we might have some illusory “freedom,” but we don’t have democracy (literally, “rule by the people”). The public sector is where we express our values as a community; values of caring for each other, social solidarity and human rights. Public sector institutions are our institutions. In those cases when they aren’t working for us, we must find ways to democratize them and allow for fuller community control and participation in them.

People in Wisconsin who care about a better society are making history by organizing and defending the basic human right to organize for fairness and a voice at work. We, as Vermonters, have the opportunity to join with them by organizing for, and winning the basic human right of healthcare for all. Like people in Tunisia and Egypt and throughout the Middle East, by standing up together we can win the future we wish to see, a democracy that is truly of, by and for the people.