By Eric Timmons
La Crosse County is on the verge of paying almost all its employees a $500 bonus, which will come weeks before they get a raise of 1.75%. Combined, the proposed bonuses and the raise will cost taxpayers about $1.6 million, not an insignificant sum.
The spending has inspired some mudslinging, some of which is understandable. It’s been a tough year for all of us, but many won’t get a raise or bonus, many don’t have a job, or have watched their incomes plummet. Others are asking if the county could have used this money for more worthy causes.
These arguments miss the mark.
The county should give its employees the bonus and raises. In fact, I’d argue county workers should receive more than the 1.75% that’s planned. At the city of La Crosse, non-union employees will receive two step increases of 2.75% next year, after forgoing any increase this year. This is justified and good news for our community. We should also support the call from the University of Wisconsin System to pay raises of 2% to its employees next year.
The reality is that we can afford to pay these deserved raises to our public workers and also afford to do much more to help our homeless population, our minimum wage workers, and our families who struggle to afford childcare and even to put food on the table. But our current political system works to limit our horizons, encouraging meanness and individualism, while obscuring the correct targets for anger. This is by design, the result of decades of austerity and demonization of the public sector.
So, if you don’t work for the government, you shouldn’t be upset that your neighbor who does is getting a raise. The raises at the county and city and hopefully at UWL will provide a lift to the local economy. The workers will spend the money at local businesses, they’ll fix their cars, they’ll help their kids with college expenses, they’ll pay down credit card debt. All good things we’ll all benefit from.
Higher wages for public workers also make it harder for private sector bosses to pay less, as they’re faced with stronger competition for employees. This is good. If you are not getting a raise this year, you should be asking your boss why, not railing on your fellow workers who are getting a boost. It’s not easy to do, especially now, but workers should organize and fight together for better wages and conditions across the board, rather than fight amongst themselves.
At the city and county level in La Crosse, if anything, both bodies are generally far too fiscally conservative. They sit on large cash reserves to please credit ratings agencies. They have been infected by a “business” mentality that means they hire too many consultants to tell them things we already know, and worry far too much about wealthy developers, rather than low-income families and those who tonight in La Crosse are unsheltered or don’t have enough to eat.
The truth is we can have local government that pays workers the middle class wages they deserve, and we can also do much more to help those the system has marginalized and forgotten. In fact, the solution to the multiple impasses we find blocking our path, from the climate to poverty, is a much larger and more robust public sector, shorn of the worst excesses of the security state. In that future, more of us will enjoy middle class wages, job security, and a society with a heavier focus on the common good, rather than the pursuit of profit. So, support raises and bonuses for our public workers, and then demand a much better society for all.
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