From Illinois Issues magazine, University of Illinois at
Springfield, September, 2012, pp. 24-27. See attachment.
Illinois' public workers face a morale crisis
By Robert Bruno
What exactly did Illinois teachers, police officers, firefighters,
sanitation employees, correction officers, building inspectors,
employment service representatives, bus drivers, child welfare
specialists, residential care workers, lab technicians or librarians
Did the majority - or even a minority - of teachers ignore
children's feelings or fail to explain something like photosynthesis
or not give a bewildering battery of questionable tests? Were there
large numbers of police officers who let crime happen or who ignored
public safety and simply walked away from danger? Has anyone ever
heard of a firefighter not risking his or her life to put out a fire
or refusing to apply emergency life saving procedures to a critical
Anyone know even one, just one?
Do the folks hired to remove most of our personal refuse
callously toss the waste back into our yards? Has anyone heard of a
prison guard who has let a violent criminal - or any inmate - just
walk out of a jail cell?
Just how many of the thousands of approved building permits
result in garages that collapse on the family car? What percentage of
eligible workers who file for unemployment relief go without the
difference between staying in their homes and living out of their cars
because a public employee failed to file a form? When was the last
time you had a valid bus or train ticket but you were not allowed to
board? Are employees who serve at-risk children and disabled
adults not processing ridiculously high caseloads or willfully
subjecting the state's most vulnerable residents to abuse?
What proportion of the thousands of ill patients is suffering
because state medical personnel lack the skills to do their jobs? And
for heaven's sake, are there obstinate librarians who can't find the
books you want or won't show you how to conduct research
for your English term paper? I can honestly say that after publishing
three books and numerous scholarly articles, I've never met an
unhelpful librarian. Seriously, does one such person even exist?
Unless you honestly answered yes to any of the above questions,
you might think you have fallen down the rabbit-hole where, like
Alice, you are forced to deny what you know to be true about Illinois'
public employees. Instead of embracing the high civic mindedness of
public employees, you are fooled by a politically manufactured
unreality where, as the Mad Hatter explains, "nothing would be
what it is because everything would be what it isn't. And
contrary-wise, what is, it wouldn't be. And what it wouldn't be, it
would. You see?"
There is no Illinois-specific barometer that measures the
disposition of the state's public employees, but experts across the
country have referred to a "public service morale crisis:'
As one educator notes in a study focusing on Chicago K-12 teachers
that I conducted along with my colleague Steven Ashby, the prevailing
mood is a sense of disorientation and demoralization: 'The only thing
that keeps me going during this really stressful, demoralizing year is
the students. When students come to you with questions, when they ask
for letters of recommendation, they keep you motivated. We're here for
the kids, ultimately. So many teachers this year have told me that
they're thinking of quitting. It's sad. Every day, teachers talk to me
about the teacher-bashing in the media. People here work so hard. To
hear they're retiring early and wanting to leave is really, really
awful. Our kids deserve teachers who are happy to come to work every
day and who feel supported."
As citizens, we know the value of public service and we recognize
that without the roughly 51,000 state and 450,000 educational and
local government employees, life in Illinois for its roughly 13
million residents would become, to quote Thomas Hobbs, "solitary,
poor, nasty, brutish and short:' A quick estimate reveals that
slightly more than 3 percent of the state's citizens are servicing the
other 97 percent; hardly a ratio that would be a drain on the
commonwealth. So why the political and editorial page attacks on what
highly educated teachers earn or what a child welfare advocate will
accumulate in retirement savings? Study after study has demonstrated
that after controlling for multiple factors -including level of
education, hours worked and non "cash compensation" - public
employees are compensated less well than similarly situated private
sector workers. One analysis by my university colleague Craig Olson
found that K-12 public school teachers in Wisconsin assume a
considerable wage penalty for wanting nothing more than to partner
with parents in lifting up the great hope in every child. There are in
exceptional cases some public employees who can supplement their base
earnings. Firefighters, for instance, commit to lifelong learning and
are paid to acquire additional lifesaving skills.
Would you prefer it otherwise?
Think for a moment about what public sector employees protect and
preserve. Illinois' natural resources encompass 60 parks and roughly
an equal number of preserves. Public bodies across the state are
responsible for managing nearly 500 million acres of land and water
and provide stewardship over no fewer than 50,000 square miles of
The state supports, sadly less and less every year, nine
depending on how you count - universities and operates 29
correctional institutions. More than 3 million children learn to read,
write, do mathematics and most importantly, learn how to be fully
participatory citizens of a democracy in approximately 900 school
districts. There are at least 1,100 and 1,300 municipal fire and
police departments, respectively, spread across the state protecting
the sanctity of more than 5 million housing units and 300,000 business
establishments. Municipal, village and county officials issue in
excess of 11,000 housing building permits annually and then inspect
the work to be certain it complies with applicable codes. There are
also six operating nuclear plants regulated by the state and
hundreds of sanitation and water reclamation districts.
Illinois services 143,000 miles of"centerline" roads
(two-way traffic with a line painted down the middle), at least 12
major interstate highways, 7,313 miles of railroad track and 50
airports. The state's publicly maintained transportation network moves
millions of people to and from their jobs and points of interest.
On Illinois toil roads, there are more than 800 million toll
transactions a year. More than a million rail passengers travel
annually on the five Amtrak lines operated by the state. And in
Chicago last year, 66 million flyers moved through O'Hare and Midway
airports, while weekday bus and subway hoardings exceeded 1.5
Put aside for the moment the bellicose partisan bickering over
the structure and size of Ilinois' public sector and consider the mere
dimensions of the state's footprint. I have no reasonable estimate of
the property asset value of the state, but a conservative and casual
guess would be billions. Whatever the absurdly high dollar amount, it
is important to realize that the entity called the ''state of
Illinois" represents the people's assets. It is their collective
holdings of public goods held In common. Delivering and caring for
these goods enriches the citizens in three interlocking self-enriching
First, we all get somebody to put the fire out in our house, with
lives and property thereby saved. But secondly, because somebody
teaches us how to read and write (those heretofore mentioned underpaid
teacher's) we significantly increase our individual ability to earn
private goods, like income, and thus avoid becoming dependent on state
aid. Finally, a portion of our privately awarded goods - which we
would not have had if not for a public sector - is recycled back in
the form of taxes and fees to replenish the wealth of the commons.
Realizing the expansive outer circumference of our public goods and
the interdependent ways we all benefit from them raises the following
question: Why would we demean the people we entrust with our
There is no doubt that our elected leaders and too many opinion
makers are dishing out plenty of disrespect for the people who, in
effect, take care of our "house". Is it because they never
thought about how poor and working-class people who were sick became
well? Maybe they never wondered who cut the grass or how the flowers
were watered in the parks their children use. Nature and vehicular
traffic opened up the potholes, but do they ever think about who
filled them? Who, after all, maintains the state's vast
infrastructure? Who educates the state's future doctors, lawyers,
business leaders, engineers, chemists, teachers, doctors, jazz
pianists and, yes, librarians? Who takes your picture when you apply
for one of the state's 8 million driver's licenses? Who processes
thousands of medical claims for the poor, sick, injured and
The disembodied way that Springfield and local political leaders,
as well as media commentators, speak of government employment reminds
me of Bertolt Brecht's poem, Questions from a Worker Who
Reads." The poem's opening stanza includes the
Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the name of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished.
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go?
It is shamefully easy to demand that government employees earn
less, accept increased retirement insecurity and pay more for the
privilege of serving us all when those workers are present but
invisible. We admire, consume and individually benefit from the way
government employees tend our common "gardens:' We like the
flowers; we would rather not see the worker who got dirty tilling the
soil. When political leaders, business heads, privatization advocates
and main street editors appropriate the state's wealth and then preach
fiscal austerity, they act as if the public employee was a cipher
instead of a servant.
Not only are public employees net contributors to lllinois'
prosperity who work and pay more in taxes than they use in public
services such as Medicaid, they are a relatively small group. lllinois
has the lowest and still-falling per capita state work force in the
nation. As citizens, we are not sufficiently mindful that within the
more than three dozen state agencies, including Aging, Agriculture,
Capital Development, Commerce, Employment Security,
Study identifies teacher burnout
Teacher burnout was one of the subjects addressed in the April
report, Beyond the Classroom: An Analysis of a Chicago Public
School Teachers Actual Workday.
Until recently, the Chicago Public Schools system had one of the
shortest school days in the nation: five hours and 45 minutes for
elementary school students; and six hours and 45 minutes for high
school students. Sometimes-hostile negotiations involving Mayor Rahm
Emanuel's administration, the school district and the Chicago
Teachers' Union resulted in a 2012-13 school day of seven hours for
elementary students; and seven and a half hours for high school
students. The CPS announced in July that an additional 475 teachers
would be hired to address the lengthened day.
University of lllinois labor relations professors Robert Bruno
and Steven Ashby and U of I Chicago graduate student Frank Manzo
co-wrote a scholarly paper in which they surveyed 983 Chicago Public
Schools teachers. Bruno is director of the Labor Education program
under the School of Labor and Employment Relations, and Ashby is a
professor of labor and employment relations.
"Everyone knows a teacher's role goes beyond classroom
instruction;' Bruno said in a university news release. "We wanted
to quantify how much beyond instruction that role extends."
The study found that teachers work 58 hours per week on average
during the school year and that they spend almost an additional two
hours working at home in the evening.
Work, the researchers found, continues on the weekend for an
average of three hours and 45 minutes. They also reported that
teachers spend more than three hours a day on non-teaching
The study also found that teachers spend an average of 12 days
during the summer break performing at least one school-related
activity and that they undergo an additional 30 hours of
professional development training while the school year is not in
Chicago public school teachers "burn out" at a
higher-than-usual rate, Bruno said in the release.
"The turnover rate is almost 50 percent of faculty within
five years. Nobody ever quite steps back and says, 'What are we doing
to these teachers in this five-year period that's generating such
turnover?' One of the recommendations we make is for an examination of
the impact of nearly 60-hour work weeks on teacher stress, creativity,
job satisfaction and turnover."
One teacher who was surveyed told the researchers:"During
my lunch period, rarely do I just eat lunch - I'm usually doing two or
three things while I'm eating. I never fee/like I'm done, I never feel
like I'm caught up. We work very hard. Sometimes after school, when
I'm trying to enter grades, I can hardly keep my eyes
Another teacher reported: "One of the most stressful
things about my job is that I'm more than a teacher. Students come up
to tell me about serious things in their lives. About a fiend whose
boyfriend beat her up. About bullying. About sexual abuse. About being
stalked. About being homeless -we've 50 homeless kids in our
school. As their teacher; you're the only adult outside the immediate
family that the child deals with. You are the normal for them. You are
their teacher, counselor and therapist; you are so much more than a
teacher. Teaching is a very nurturing job. The school is
understaffed; there aren't enough social workers to handle all the
problems the kids have:'
Healthcare and Family Services, Public Health, Transportation and
Veterans Affairs: a largely unionized workforce serves the public.
Making these workers pay the price for a fiscal problem they did not
create by, for example, making them pay more for their post-employment
medical care, threatening to reduce their pension savings and
withholding contractual pay raises, is heaping insult upon injury.
What we have in lllinois is a shrinking, embattled and deeply
apprehensive public workforce earning below market pay but charged
with taking care of nearly 13 million citizens,
800,000 of them whom are veterans.
For all their dedicated service, public employees are subjected
to a frenzied echo-chamber of calls from conservative political
leaders and media outlets to erode the quality of public service.
Reading and listening to frantic diatribes against government employee
benefits helps me to better understand why Eugene Ionesco, a
Romanlan-bom dramatist and playwright, ruefully claimed that "a
civil servant doesn't make jokes:' There is actually something tragic
and.farcical about having a Democratic Chicago mayor and a Democratic
governor Withholding contracted guaranteed pay raises for unionized
public employees at the same time. Once again, in thinking about the
treatment of our public servants, it is Alice's·exasperation that
comes to mind: "It would be so nice if something made
Sense for a change".
I am at a loss to understand what version of public service we
are communicating workers.We have withdrawn a long way from the
ancient Greeks' notion that happiness was closely connected to the
success and fulfillment achieved during public service. Socrates'
Nicomachean Ethics claimed that the end goal of human existence is
a kind of happiness achieved by contributing to the public good.
Aristotle further argued in the Politics that civil servitude
was the most effective means of instilling personal and Civic virture.
In Book III of The Social Contract, Jean Rousseau states that
"as soon as public service ceases to be the chief business
of the citizens, and they would rather serve with their money than
with their persons, the State is not far from its fall." Paying
taxes is important, but no amount would matter without citizens who
desire to serve the public.
When politicians collect the people's money to serve the people's
interests, while simultaneously disrespecting the workers who do the
people's work, it strips public service of its virtue and destroys
morale. It also vilifies the workers who implement and deliver the
initiatives of the very same politicians who slander the public
sector. Scapegoating government workers for the failures of Wall
Street and finance capitalism will certainly cause government
employees to suffer, as well as the vast majority of citizens who
depend on public goods. Only those people who can buy their way into
private enclaves of human existence will go largely unscarred by a
diminished public sector. The following June 28 headline in the
Illinois Times suggests that reduced public benefits along with
punitive cuts in public spending have already pushed us closer to
Rousseau's failed state: "Illinois Is Falling Apart."
Timing is everything. Precisely when budgets are being cut we are
asking front line·employees who have been stereotyped as burdens on
the taxpayers to work with and for less. Contrary to how political
leaders and critics of government obscure the realities of public
service, state add local employees do not have an instrumental
relationship With the mission of their employer. Teachers do not care
less about students when the schools they teach for care less about
the teachers. Mental health technicians are no less sensitive to their
patients when the medical clinics they work for care less for the
people who provide the care. Firefighters will still run into burning
buildings even if they have to pay to clean their own uniforms. But
teachers should be honored, medical staff appreciated and firefighters
held in the highest regard so that they can always proudly display the
colors of their municipality's firehouse.
I have no doubt that as the shameful assault on state and local
civil servants continues, the vast majority of current public
employees will do their duty. But even the most dedicated librarian
can only do so much, and if the state's political leadership succeeds
in devaluing the public sector, the troubling thought that interrupts
my meditative morning walks is: Who will help my daughter find the
book she needs tomorrow?
Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at
the University of Illinois, is director of the Labor Education program
under the School of Labor and Employment Relations.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244