Austerity in the UK: The new civil service

In case you haven't heard about it (and even if you have), British civil servants are planning a major one-day strike for tomorrow. They're protesting the conservative government's proposed austerity measures. More specifically, public employees are indignant about substantial increases in the contributions they must make to their pensions, and an increase in the retirement age. In order to save the UK government from a manufactured crisis, its employees will be working later in life for less pay. Where have I heard that before?

The Guardian has been providing tons of coverage from multiple perspectives. This includes quotes from workers, and analyses of why teachers will be striking.

By a moderate coincidence, a few days ago I got my annual statement from the New York State Teachers' Retirement System (TRS). Gold-plated it was not. New York State is constantly reducing the value and harshening the terms of its public employees' pension. (At the moment, NYS classifies its employees into one of five tiers based on their first date of service. The later one starts, the higher the tier and the less generous the pension.)

New York State employees are also looking at a pay freeze for multiple years (just like UK public employees), and required unpaid furloughs.

Anyhow, I thought I'd take this opportunity to express solidarity with workers in Britain while simultaneously beginning to explore why I chose to leave the public sector.

For me, my pay and benefits weren't as much of an issue as the lack of respect they represented. Don't get me wrong, there's all sorts of disrespect in the private sector. However, I think there's a fundamentally different dynamic to the abuse public employees deal with.

Let's say you're an employee in the private sector. If you refuse to work long hours, don't have the resources you need to do your job, are doing the work of multiple people, have incompetent coworkers or supervisors, you could cost your employer money, which could lead to you losing your job. Likewise, your boss might (also) be an asshole and/or cheap, and fire you for whatever. If you don't have a union, you're pretty much out of luck. If you do have a union, you still may be out of a job.

If you get fired or laid off under such circumstances, a lot of folks will conclude that your boss is an asshole. To hell with hir. What an isolated and unfortunately awful person.

Let's say you teach. You will most certainly be working long hours, doing the work of several people. It's pretty much a given that you won't have the resources available to do your job well.

These working circumstances fly in the face of a culture that claims that universal education is an important, fundamental right.

Some of your students will drop out or perform badly on standardized tests, or be unhappy with the education they received. This may be because the system sets up teachers and students to fail. It may be because some of your students do not have adequate food, shelter, and medical care, and are somewhat distracted from their studies.

It won't matter. Someone, somewhere will notice you or your institution, and you and/or your institution will be faced with pressure to "step up your game" or else. Every. Single. Night. you'll hear politicians and pundits talk about how lazy, inept, and overpaid you and your colleagues are. A lot of your neighbors, the same people who depend on your hard work, will agree with the pundits and they'll elect politicians that will continue to attack you.

And why, do you ask, would politicians attack teachers? Because teaching is one of the most important professions in the world. A lack of educated workers is what keeps the economy in shambles. The lack of quality education causes poverty, crime, and otherwise destroys our bootstraps.

In this line of reasoning, the key to social mobility (or the lack thereof) is education, not reckless speculators and wealthy tax scofflaws. After all, in this narrative the rich got where they are by virtue of their intelligence and education, not by virtue having vast amounts of privilege.

Teaching is important. Its something I enjoy immensely, and consider myself reasonably good at. In my job search, I applied for a lot of positions teaching and/or writing in public and private, for-profit and non-profit settings. They all paid a lot less than the job I'm ending up with, because I'll be working in a position that society agrees involves technical skills.

Thus, teaching is the most important job in the world yet anyone can do it. (See also: writing) Despite this, just about everyone who tries it fails miserably, because they are bad, lazy, incompetent people, which explains why teachers don't get paid squat.

Mixed messages, anyone?

Without going into the specifics of my job, my mental health has declined precipitously during the three-and-a-half years I've taught for the State University of New York. I'm not alone. When I started, my colleagues warned me this would happen. Apparently my profession breaks up families and destroys lives.

I couldn't take it anymore. My family couldn't take it anymore. I'm taking my Ativan (among other things) that I take for my multiple daily panic attacks and going home. I love teaching, but I grudgingly engage in occasional acts of self-care.

Here's one last thing. Three quarters of my teachers' union (which covers K-12 and SUNY teachers) are women. I suspect that many other sectors of the government workforce are heavily female (provision of health care and social services, for instance).

Throughout Europe, Canada, and the US, governments have also been at the forefront of hiring workers based on merit. I don't care what lies people have told you, modern governments tend to hire qualified candidates, even if they're not temporarily able-bodied, straight, cis, white, Protestant guys who are related to their supervisor. It's an open secret that the civil service is one of the places you go to get work when other people are too bigoted to hire you.

That the composition of the civil service doesn't mirror that of corporate boardrooms or government cabinets is not immaterial. In numerous times and places, meaningful public sector employment and the services that public employees provide have been important in aiding upward social mobility. Despite their talk, most of what has come to be termed "the 1%" isn't interested in social mobility or in paying taxes to support it.

The double talk, aggression, and hatred aimed at public employees from our bosses (ostensibly, our neighbors) takes a huge daily toll on us. This is why I standard in solidarity with the workers in Britain.

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