Yesterday we marked the 10th Anniversary of 9/11 when most Americans watched in horror at the devastation of the terrorist attacks in New York City and elsewhere but were then moved by the heroism of the first responders to the disaster—most of whom were firefighters and cops who risked their lives to help their fellow citizens. They were America’s working class heroes, the pride of the nation.
This led to a wave of appreciation of public servants like them across the country as not just New York’s finest, but public safety workers were honored in the press, at ballgames, and during community events. Here in San Diego, the catastrophic fires that subsequently ravaged San Diego gave us an even stronger appreciation of the work that firefighters do to help protect our homes and lives during times of disaster. They put it all on the line for us. I thought of them again during the recent power outage as I heard the sirens roaring from my local fire station ceaselessly last Thursday evening.
But now that those times are beginning to fade from memory, we note the anniversary of 9/11 but then we blithely slide back to a politics which has put public sector workers in the cross-hairs, blaming them for an economic crisis that is not of their making. As Anthony Beebe, the President of Continuing Education in the San Diego Community College District recently noted in an address to faculty and staff last week:
Of course, Labor Day is a national tribute to honor the contributions of workers, who have strengthened the well-being of our country. Unfortunately, there is a sector of workers who have recently not been so fortunate to be celebrated – public service workers… My mother and father always held that public service work, particularly that of the police service, fire service, and public education, is one of the highest possible callings. They were strong believers that both the private sector and the public sector have critically important and complementary roles in our economy and society. For them, the public service corps had a simple overarching goal – to improve the “public well-being,” doing what is good for the greater public benefit…
…nobody in uniform should get too comfortable with being the last ones standing…
Like many of you, most of my life has been in public service. I started out as a fire fighter and transitioned to teaching in public colleges after completing my Master’s degree. I tell you this because with all the rhetoric and ambient noise out there, it is easy to forget that public service is still one of the noblest efforts of all. Never forget that! Through your work in this amazing public community college District, you are filling critical gaps – with the elderly, the uneducated, the disenfranchised, the poor, the disabled, and so many others. In the services we offer, there is simply no profit motivation to make the private sector want to provide comparable services. As such, but for you and your public service, these services to the most vulnerable and needy among us would vanish. It is hypocritical for some politicians to slight the work of front-line public service employees. They, themselves, are public servants; but different from us, they will reap future lifetime rewards greater than any of us could imagine.
And that hypocrisy is on full display here in San Diego. Indeed, while in the wake of 9/11 there was always a bit of cognitive dissonance involved in the praise being heaped upon union workers by politicians who were clearly fair-weather friends, today, in San Diego, Carl DeMaio and his allies in the local right have declared war outright on the city’s workers, firefighters among them, as they seek to put an initiative on the ballot to bust their pensions. And even though the police are spared by this initiative, nobody in uniform should get too comfortable with being the last ones standing. The bell will toll for the men and women in blue soon enough. So much for sentimental patriotism and civic pride—now these workers are “pigs in a trough,” as right wing think tanks like to put it. Anybody who watched a few minutes of football this Sunday couldn’t miss the nods to New York City’s cops and firefighters, but all of the FDNY and NYPD hats in the world can’t make up for the real damage being done to the public sector by the American right.
What this assault on public sector pensions masks, of course, is that it is the local business elite and San Diego’s robber barons who have been raiding the municipal cookie jar while the local press has been pounding away at city workers. As UCSD’s Steve Erie and co-authors Vladimir Kogan, and Scott MacKenzie show in their new book Paradise Plundered: Fiscal Crisis and Governance Failures in San Diego (Stanford University Press, 2011), San Diego’s fiscal mess is just as much a product of our city’s decade’s long aversion to any taxes and our reliance on “public-private partnerships” which enrich the affluent while delivering little to the majority of San Diegans. I will do a more thorough review of this important new book in a later column but a few things are worth noting.
Specifically, the authors document that, “Across nearly all city departments, San Diego has consistently hired fewer public employees and spent less on their wage compensation than other large California cities.” And we have paid for their pensions with bogus “surplus revenue” schemes that allowed politicians to offer voters services without asking them to pay for them. On the other hand, San Diego’s political and business elite have done a fantastic job of “using pubic resources to maximize private profit” with little to no oversight from our “shadow governments” and local media who they accuse of “largely representing downtown business interests.” Importantly, while not sparing the likes of Ron Saathoff, former Firefighters’ union president, Paradise Plundered singles out the arguments being made by DeMaio, the Union-Tribune, and others in the San Diego media that we have spent ourselves to ruin by illustrating that “the city’s public finances over the past four decades have been marked by fiscal austerity, not profligacy.” More on this later.
The Fog of the Petition War: Fear and Loathing and KUSI
Speaking of no watchdog reporting: the word on the street is that DeMaio lapdog, KUSI, will be featuring the councilman’s pension-busting petition drive this week. I might comment on how remarkable it is to have a local TV news show become a PR vehicle for a right-wing political hack, but the fact is that it is not remarkable in the San Diego media landscape, so I will cease and desist from playing at being shocked by corporate media news bias. It’s just how they roll down here in America’s finest.
While DeMaio and company have been complaining about the “petition blockers” (AKA the “Decline to Sign” campaign), the record should show that nobody on the other side of this and/or the other anti-labor petitions questions the fact that DeMaio’s paid army of petition gatherers has a right to free speech—they do. What seems to be at question here is whether or not people on the other side also have free speech. Dramatic pause—they do too. So really what’s become a problem here is that the paid petition gatherers who have invaded our storefronts, campuses, and are now heading to your doorstep, seem to think they have the right to insult, threaten and/or assault their political opponents when they successfully stop them from making their seven bucks a signature. In an earlier column, I noted the attack on Lorena Gonzales’s home and other incidents of violence. Since then the fun has continued with more physical assaults on women. Some of the lowlifes at City College were outlined in this note that my union president sent to campus employees to alert them to the situation:
Now that the new semester has begun, our campuses have been flooded by petition gatherers who have not hesitated to cross the line from free speech to criminality when confronted by “Decline to Sign” volunteers and AFT activists. This week on the City College campus, AFT staff were threatened with several petition gatherers physically accosting a female activist, threatening to steal her jewelry, insulting her, and taking her hat off and throwing it over a rail. A male volunteer was also similarly assaulted… In the worst incident, a labor council worker on the “Decline to Sign” team was struck in the face and had his glasses knocked off. His assailant was later arrested by the college police. Apparently, this petition gatherer had quite a criminal record and was on probation so he is now back in jail.
In other incidents, AFT members telling students not to sign anti-worker petitions have also been threatened and followed. In the most recent case, one of the petition gatherers stole the camera of a “Decline to Sign” volunteer and drove off with it. City of San Diego police are investigating this crime… If you see petition gatherers on your campus please walk over and say that you work here at the college and that the employees of the college are urging all of their students not to sign petitions that hurt workers.
The petition gatherers have been routinely lying (even to the point of “inventing” fake initiatives to lure students in, and then doing the bait and switch to have them sign the anti-worker petitions) and misrepresenting what they are asking our students to sign and—when confronted by free speech on the other side of the issue—have felt free to resort to threats or violence rather than argue their case against us…
While our opponents certainly have free speech rights to be on campus and the right to try to qualify ballot measures, they should not be able to do so by telling students that these measures will lower their car insurance, help fund schools, or reduce the price of gasoline—none of which are true… So please, “Decline to Sign” and tell your students, friends, and family members to do the same. Remember, every petition currently in circulation is bad for workers and middle class families.
Since this letter was sent out, we have had another woman working on the “Decline to Sign” campaign pushed to the ground by a much larger male petition gatherer. “Decline” workers met with racial and homophobic slurs, and women have been harassed on the way to class.
Off campus another woman reported that, “a 6’2″ petitioner hit and shoved me in front of a Home Depot while I was merely trying to take a picture of his sign. Carl DeMaio was literally 100 ft away at Albertsons with about 15 of his people all wearing their blue shirts. It was on Balboa and Genesee on a Sunday. A police officer came out and asked Home Depot to submit the footage of this man and me because it happened right in front of the store doorway. I am a 4’11” woman and there’s no excuse for man to ever hit a woman. I have a case number for this incident and I am still waiting for a detective to call me regarding the case. The man was charged with a misdemeanor and told to never petition at that Home Depot again.”
In yet another case a “Decline” worker reports that, “At Walmart a couple weeks ago one of the petitioners that was at City College spit on one of us and the manager of Walmart saw what happened and took a picture and showed it to police. The man was charged with a misdemeanor assault.”
Finally there is this amazing report from the annals of DeMaio’s “grassroots” reform movement. As one of the “Decline” team reported to me, “There’s another individual we call ‘hit and run.’ He was standing in front of Vons in Mira Mesa and he actually freaked out when we showed our signs so he ran to his car and backed out of his parking spot almost hitting 2 people and slamming into a parked BMW and left. It turns out the BMW belonged to the Vons Manager and he pressed charges.”
This my friends is the best democracy money can buy—an army of paid guns, many from out of state put up in a fancy hotel in Mission Valley, some of them thugs and criminals with records, hitting the streets of San Diego to help bust the pensions of our City employees. For the most part, the petition gatherers are either ignorant of the issues or just don’t care. It’s the dollar signs that are guiding them, not any commitment to our community or political principle.
Carl DeMaio might just as easily be Jay Gould, the Robber Baron of old, who once quipped that he could “hire one half of the working class to shoot the other half.”
Stay classy San Diego.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: My colleagues and I in the San Diego Community College District are not in the City of San Diego’s pension system and there is no link between the two systems.
Read more of Jim Miller’s column, “Under the Perfect Sun”