Friday, February 25, 2011

Ode to public employees...

I need to write this now--who knows when I'll have time and access to a computer again at the same time! It's been percolating in my brain for about a week.

Maybe this is high-falutin' (and it shows I'm the product of a liberal arts education), but I keep thinking of these lines from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice:
"Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?..."

Public employees, in Wisconsin and beyond, are not facing anything near what people like Shylock, a Jewish moneylender in Elizabethan times, faced. But the sentiment's the same. The predominant sentiment for so long, it seems, is that all government workers do is take money from taxpayers. Like we're not taxpayers, consumers, family members, volunteers, supporters of charities, CITIZENS.

Like we're not WORKERS. I HATE the phrase "it's good enough for government work" as if all government workers have abysmally low standards for quality.

When I started working for a state university, my personality did NOT change. The kid who was proud of her academic work, who liked getting good grades, did not become a woman who could care less about the quality of her work. I like doing a good job, for a myriad of reasons.
* I like knowing that my efforts helped someone. I like feeling useful.
* I like recognition, from my colleagues here, and throughout my profession.
* I like the thanks I get from patrons and colleagues I help.
* I like seeing the light dawn in a student's eyes, as they see all the resources they have access to, or as they realize something, about a government, or an organization, or publisher, that they wouldn't have thought of if I hadn't pointed it out.
* Oh, yeah, I liked it when I got a good review, and got a merit raise or small promotion because of it. I'm thinking those days are over if I stick with the public sector.

My parents taught me to work hard and be honest, at work and at play. I don't always live up to the ethical standards they had for me, that I have for me, but I don't stop trying.

I work hard because I don't want to let my colleagues down. I respect them. I admire their talents and their hard work. I appreciate their support, their covering for me.

As a reference librarian, I work directly with the public. But I also work with catalogers and information technology people, who know that their work behind the scenes helps our users, who keep the users utmost in their minds. We recognize we have budgetary and administrative restraints. But we're creative. We LIKE solving problems. I see that in the committees I'm on, whether it's people who maintain our chat reference service, or who work with government documents.

The Wisconsin Idea, that the borders of the university are the borders of the state (ie, we serve the citizens of Wisconsin as well as the students, faculty, and staff of the university), is something that we talk about in staff meetings, that we keep in mind as we make decisions about services. Here's a slightly obscure example: Right now, patrons pay for printouts and photocopying with a card anyone can buy in our libraries. The university wants us to switch to a different card system that will be more convenient for students, but more expensive and inconvenient for non-students (and we have a lot of non-student patrons). Our IT department is working very hard to find ways that we can reduce the costs of this new system, and make it less cumbersome. Public service people didn't have to push the IT people to look for these solutions; the IT folks do it because they're thinking about our users.

Do some of us slack off from time to time? Yep. But I don't think that's unique to the public sector. Are there some bad apples in the bunch? Yep. Again, I think there are some in the private sector as well. But I don't think we're any less dedicated or creative overall than those who work in the private sector.

I not only work for the state, I benefit from good public services (and I pay taxes that support them). I love public parks--state, county, city. I like clean, functional bathrooms in public parks and public buildings. Of course I love my public library system. What a remarkable idea--communities banding together to buy books (and magazines, and audio materials, and videos) of all kinds to share among the community. And libraries also provide free computer and internet access, and cheap public meeting rooms! As a bicyclist, I appreciate roads without potholes, not to mention separate bike paths. I like clear signage on paths, streets, and highways. I like that I don't have to bribe city or state bureaucrats or inspectors. I like friendly, efficient employees at the city who accept my tax and water payments, or help me with absentee voting. The building inspector who inspected my house a few months after I bought it from my mom's estate said some very wise things to me (though she was wrong about how long my furnace would last). When I walk to work on snowy days, it's always a relief to get to the sidewalks that the university maintains. I can count on those being cleared. I wish I could say the same for the walks homeowners(including me) are responsible for.

I give back to my community, too. Not nearly as much as I should, but I do some volunteering. I've worked on a couple of service projects with my library colleagues, where we as a group gave up a weekend day here and there to pull weeds, and to paint someone's house (that was a two-day project for some of us). I contribute to the charitable giving program for public employees. I choose among charities, and specify amounts to go to each one, and have these donations deducted from my monthly paychecks. (Note: I also choose to have monthly union dues deducted from my paycheck. Walker's bill would eliminate the practice for union dues. Why that gets eliminated, and not the charitable deduction program, which presumably costs as much, if not more, to administer, is a good question.) I've volunteered at the blood drives held at my workplace. I've participated in food drives held at my workplace.

Yet, to listen to some right-wing pundits, all I am, all my colleagues are, are vampires, sucking the life out of our communities. And doing so not out of necessity, but spite.

I'm saddened by the fact that so many private-sector employees don't receive the benefits I do. I also get jealous of some of the salaries my friends in the private sector receive.

What's with the vilifying? To quote Rodney King, "Can't we all get along?"


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