Two thousand and eleven has been one of the toughest years for public workers that I can remember. Every month until this past one, the private sector has added jobs, and every month the public sector has lost them. The August employment report shows that the public sector got hit hard again — losing 17,000 jobs. In states across the country, public workers aren’t just being laid off; they’re being made into economic scapegoats. These workers deserve to be treated fairly any time. But in the wake of Hurricane Irene, as we watched teams of federal, state and local government workers tirelessly saving lives, and on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, they deserve much better.
The last decade has been marked by both peril and possibility, and in all of it there has been no shortage of American heroes. Many, if not the vast majority, worked for the government — as firefighters and police, as teachers and rescue workers. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, men and women proudly wore hats and shirts labeled “FDNY” and “NYPD.” When we wept for our nation, it was the bravery of the first responders that reminded us of our national character. There was a newfound respect for public service and a heartening change in how Americans viewed their government. Fire and police departments, and organizations such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, saw a surge in applicants. We didn’t just want to believe in those workers. We wanted to be them.