Sharpton Defends Public Workers

Feb 11, 2011

By Dan McKay
Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer

Public workers in New Mexico and elsewhere face blame as “scapegoats” for an economic meltdown that’s not their fault, and it’s time to fight back, the Rev. Al Sharpton and labor leaders said Thursday. Sharpton and Lee Saunders, secretary-treasurer of AFSCME, visited University of New Mexico students and others in Albuquerque Thursday to kick off a nationwide effort uniting the civil rights and labor movements on behalf of working families.

The tour is necessary, they say, to stand up for government employees, in particular, who face wage cuts, pension changes and other cost-cutting measures. “People are afraid and angry,” Sharpton told the Journal on Thursday. Proposed cuts “are going straight to the bone. That’s not proven to be necessary.”

Sharpton and Saunders spoke to an enthusiastic and standing room-only crowd inside UNM’s Student Union Building. They also plan to talk to state legislators and members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees this week. Sharpton and Saunders say some political leaders have been too quick to blame public workers for government budget troubles. The salaries for rank-and-file workers in libraries, schools and sanitation departments aren’t out of line with private pay, they say, and cutting pension benefits would have no immediate impact on the budget crunch governments are facing.

A more-balanced solution is necessary, they said, perhaps even tax increases or other measures to boost revenue. Saunders and Sharpton said the middle-class is shrinking and facing new financial burdens. The rich, including those on Wall Street who had a hand in the economic crisis, have not had to make the same kind of painful changes to their lifestyle, they said.  “We’ve got to ask the question, ‘What kind of country do we want to be?'” Saunders said.

He said government workers must be willing to make changes, too, as part of a balanced negotiation. They may have to be willing to retire at an older age, for example, he said. But simply balancing the budgets through furloughs and wage cuts on ordinary workers isn’t fair, Saunders said. “We didn’t cause this problem, so we shouldn’t be used as an excuse,” he said.