(WOMENSENEWS) Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s slash-and-burn approach to public sector unions–imitated by over a dozen Republican governors across the nation–is the political equivalent of slamming women’s labor history into reverse. Right in the middle of Women’s History Month.
While women represented 57 percent of the public-sector work force at the end of the recession, women lost the vast majority–79 percent–of the 327,000 jobs cut in this sector between July 2009 and February 2011, according to a January report by the Washington, D.C.-based National Women’s Law Center.
Of course these job losses–and those still to come–have a bad ripple effect, leading to even more unemployment, spreading the pain far beyond the initially affected workers.
As public school class sizes get larger, as sports budgets are cut and afterschool programs eliminated, who will help with homework, coaching teams and organizing after-school activities?
These regressive budgets cut funds for home-heating oil assistance, help for the sight-impaired, street repair, water and sewage facility maintenance, nutrition programs and respite care. Not only will women have fewer options for paid work outside the home, the day-to-day work of family life will increase as well. Pressures on finances and family time will intensify. Expand. Explode.
Even today–after decades of employment advances for women–many men upon marriage free ride on wives’ unpaid household labor. Having a husband increases a woman’s domestic labor responsibilities by seven hours a week. Getting married decreases men’s housework by an hour a week. This well-known pattern was confirmed in a 2008 study by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.
Women Paying the Price
The attack on the public sector is a story of middle- and low-income women paying for the major misdeeds of a highly paid and male-dominated financial sector that has gotten away with major wrongdoing (see the Academy Award-winning documentary "Inside Job" for that vivid crime story).
Look around and you’ll see predatory financial firms enjoying record profits for the stellar job they did in the period 2004 through 2007, setting up the economy for its worst crash since 1929.
The New York Times reported that in 2009 Goldman Sachs paid employees an average of about $595,000 a piece in bonuses. While employees at JPMorgan Chase collected a mere $463,000 on average. Boo hoo.
Meanwhile workers much more representative of U.S. overall–female and male, white collar and blue collar–watched their wages and hours decline.
We’re also watching governors, following the lead of Walker, scapegoat public employees when the cause of state deficits–nationally now totaling around $112 billion–is the collapse of employment that drove down income and produced the sharp slide in home values.
Teachers and nurses and home-health aides did not cause this flood of joblessness.
Current high unemployment–over 8 percent since 2008–was caused by reckless Wall Street speculation, wholesale financial fraud, criminal negligence in residential mortgages and felonious deceit by bond ratings agencies during the $13 trillion dollar housing bubble that the Federal Reserve somehow didn’t see coming.
When an asset bubble that large pops, so does state income. State tax collections, adjusted for inflation, are now 11 percent below pre-recession levels, while the need for state-funded services has not declined, the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported just a few days ago.
Women’s Work Bastion
Women’s rights advocates have long held that women’s freedom and self-determination depend on our ability to support ourselves and contribute to household well-being. In the United States this very often means public-sector employment.
Employees at the federal (43 percent female), state (53 percent female) and local (61 percent female) levels have been able to better resist the wage reductions, benefit cuts and mass lay-offs that giant multinational corporations have visited upon employees over the last decade.
This is especially important for women because public-sector employment offers the best opportunities to use one’s education, forge a career and raise a family.
More than 20 percent of women employed by state and local governments hold jobs that require a college degree (these include K-12 and special education teachers, as well as social workers), according to the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Public-sector unionization has risen from 23 percent in 1973 to 34 percent today, according to The Economist, while declining in the private sector from 24 percent in 1973 to 7 percent today.
Another reason the public sector has been able to hang on to unions is because private sector firms have an incentive to off-shore and out source, while the vast majority of work done by the public sector–delivering meals on wheels, running public health clinics, staffing courts, repairing roads–can’t be done elsewhere.
Claims that public sector workers earn too much, meanwhile, don’t hold up.
A recent compensation study found that public-sector employees with college degrees earn $20,000 less per year than comparably educated workers in the private sector. Multiply those $20,000 dollars by all the women who taught you, who are teaching your kids, your grandchildren and your neighbors’ kids.
How can Gov. Walker and other Republican governors ask them to give up more?
Why don’t they ask captains of finance to pay instead?
Simple: They stand for bankers and corporations, not the hard-fought gains of women’s history.
Susan F. Feiner is a professor of economics and of women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. Feiner’s book, "Liberating Economics: feminist perspectives on families, work and education" is an indispensible guide to feminist economics. She is currently the principal investigator on a grant from Higher Education in Development working with faculty colleagues in the United Arab Emirates to increase instructional capacity in gender and women’s studies.
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For more information:
Statement on the Budget Repair Bill Proposal (JR ISB 11), University of Wisconsin System Women’s Studies Consortium, March 2011: