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Why we fight to protect the civil service system

DC 37 Executive Director

Lately, a lot of newspaper ink and TV and radio airtime has been devoted to bad-mouthing the civil service system and public employees, especially the modest pensions and benefits we receive after decades of dedicated service. Our salaries and benefits are called “rich” and attacked as unaffordable, threatening to bankrupt the city and state.

These attacks are unwarranted, unfair and untrue. They are also part of an agenda that targets not only us but also our communities. After all, the 121,000 public employees and 50,000 retirees who belong to District Council 37 live, work and support the communities we serve. As for being rich, city employees who belong to DC 37 make, on average, $31,000 a year, and when we retire, our pensions average a mere $17,000 to $18,000 a year.

Who are we? We work in some 1,000 job titles—everything from accountants to zookeepers. We provide health care to the hundreds of thousands of uninsured, underinsured and undocumented. We see to it your kids get to school safely. We supply food stamps and other social services for the needy. We make sure you get clean water when you turn on the tap, that your bridges, tunnels and roads are safe. We staff your libraries, museums and other cultural institutions. And, we are your neighbors, your friends and more.

The civil service system we work under protects us, but it also protects you. It ensures that we are hired not because of who we know, but because of what we know. Not only were most of us tested to make sure we were qualified for the jobs we hold, we underwent background checks, too. And there’s something else. The next time you go to a city agency, look around. Most likely, you will see a more diversified workforce than you’ll find in the private sector. That is a result of the civil service system.

Now, some are using the current financial crisis as an excuse to attack public employees and destroy the civil service system. Under the guise of closing budget deficits, they want to cut services, lay off workers and farm out our jobs by awarding multi-million dollar contracts to private consultants. Sometimes, they say, it is to cut cost. Other times, they claim it’s because the private sector does it better. We know that there are other reasons.

First, you must remember that the civil service system was created in the early 1900s as a result of the abuses of a spoils system that awarded government jobs and contracts to cronies of those in power. With civil service, workers were hired as a result of open, competitive exams. The city’s vast infrastructure of bridges, subways, highways and parks and a safety net of social services are a testament to the talent and capabilities of workers protected by that system.

Now, the Bloomberg administration is attacking that system by privatizing, outsourcing or eliminated thousands of civil service jobs—middle-class jobs. The administration has denied thousands of jobs civil service protections by awarding over $10 billion in contracts to politically connected firms that hire folks to do jobs public employees are well qualified to do.

CityTime is an infamous example of this abuse. There, the city awarded a $68 million contract to an outside consultant, which mushroomed to over $780 million as the consultant squandered hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on salaries to questionably qualified staff. (Thanks to our Controller, John Liu, we have finally put a stop to this waste-or something along this line- the public needs to know that the contract will end.)

The Department of Education is another example. Today, some 3,400 provisional employees, workers who haven’t taken or passed a civil service test, are employed at city public schools. What’s more, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein pays dozens on his personal staff in excess of $100,000 per year while DC 37 members employed by the DOE earn a fraction of that.

In addition to seeing daily the erosion of the civil service system as city services are outsourced and contracts are awarded to the politically well-connected, we are witness to the steady erosion of resources that protect New Yorkers’ quality of life as contracts are awarded to consultants based out of the state or even out of the country. We also see outside consultants standing in the way of public employees’ career opportunities because they take jobs city workers tested for successfully.

I believe that we in the labor movement are the watchdogs of the civil service system and its promise of fairness and hope and its commitment to good jobs for New Yorkers. Not a day goes by that we don’t experience people’s anger and frustration with this system being systematically undermined. And what we see troubles us. That is why we are so deeply involved in the political process. We know that our vote is a powerful weapon in the fight to protect people’s right to jobs with decent wages and benefits—jobs they earn because of what they know, not who they know—civil service jobs.

— Amsterdam News
Thursday, October 21, 2010.



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 Local 1455, District Council 37, 125 Barclay St., New York, NY 10007.