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Reclaiming the promise of high-quality public services

Grace Decker doesn’t like the direction in which her state is heading. The social worker and Kansas Organization of State Employees activist sees a state government that gives tax breaks to corporations while, at the same time, cutting essential services to the state’s most vulnerable citizens—and privatizing the jobs of the men and women who provide those services.

“They’ve reduced our staff to the point where the child protection services that we once provided are no longer getting done,” says Decker. “It’s unethical.”

In March, Decker and many of her co-workers were on hand for the launch of the AFT’s national effort to reclaim the promise of high-quality public services. One of the initiative’s goals is to fight back against those who put austerity and privatization ahead of high-quality public services that advance the common good.

Dozens of state employees from Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland and a number of other states packed a conference room in a state office building in downtown Wichita, Kan., for the launch of Reclaiming the Promise of High-Quality Public Services for Strong Communities.

“We are fighting back against policies that are just plain bad for Americans and fighting forward with a vision for America in which we reclaim the promise of public services for strong communities,” AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson said.

Just prior to the launch, Johnson, along with KOSE and AFT-Kansas President Lisa Ochs, met with Kansas state employees, who described problems that have arisen since the state slashed billions of dollars in tax revenue and privatized and cut services to the public. These include inexperienced and/or inaccessible contractors, and too few workers to meet the needs of the public.

“We are seeing austerity budgets passed in state after state, cutting essential programs and services as well as the people who provide these services,” Johnson said.

One of those attending the launch was Ray Roskos, who mobilizes state workers represented by the Illinois Federation of Teachers. He believes that the effort to reclaim the promise of high-quality public services is right on target when it focuses on uniting with the community and others.

Coalition building, he says, is an important part of the work that the IFT and its affiliates are doing on behalf of members and those they serve.

Reclaiming the promise “translates across constituencies because we’re all fighting similar battles and addressing many of the same issues,” Roskos says.

The Rev. David Hansen, from the Kansas chapter of Interfaith Worker Justice, was on hand to support the Reclaiming the Promise launch. “We have to stand together, and we have to stand up for the sake of the common good,” he asserted.

The loss of revenue and the cuts to services and programs are “already having a negative impact on the quality of life in Kansas,” said Annie McKay, from the Kansas Center for Economic Growth.

Well-prepared and supported public employees

Reclaiming the promise of high-quality public services is about fighting for first-rate public services that support communities and keep them safe, healthy and vibrant, and ensuring that communities’ tax dollars are properly invested back into the community and the resources are used responsibly and safely. It also is about making sure that public employees are well-prepared and supported to provide their communities with the high-quality services they deserve.

Ochs noted the unfairness of Kansas’ funding policies, especially in light of the recent Kansas Supreme Court ruling that the state’s school spending is unconstitutionally inadequate. “While the state has provided generous tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy, state employees have not gotten a raise in eight years, kids are being denied a fully funded education, and officials are trying to pit state employees against educators for whatever bread crumbs exist,” she said.

Debra Schumacher, a 28-year Kansas state employee, sees political action as vital to turning around the situation in Kansas. “Nothing is going to change until things change in Topeka [the state capital]. We need to wake our people up and make them realize that they can have an impact on what elected leaders do and say.”

To join in Reclaiming the Promise, visit go.aft.org/reclaimpublicservices.

Reprinted from the Summer 2014 issue of Public Employee Advocate.