Tennessee is Not for Sale

Brian K. Sohn, Ph.D.

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I went to Nashville Thursday (3/9/17) to join in with clergy, state workers, union members, and other concerned citizens to meet with state legislators to lobby against Governor Haslam’s immoral and unethical plan to privatize thousands of Tennessee state jobs. We were there on the day Senator Doug Henry, the longest-serving member of  the TN state legislature in history, was lying in state in the capitol. Despite the somber occasion, Haslam officials were meeting with the final three bidders involved in his privatization plan. As I have often found to be the case in civic participation guided by moral principles, it was both inspiring and depressing.

What’s in a Title?

One of the actions we participated in was to follow clergy members from around the state to support them silently while they delivered an impassioned letter to Haslam urging him to abandon his outsourcing/privatization plan. We walked from the legislative plaza to the Tennessee Tower silently holding signs we had created that said why we opposed outsourcing. We marched there because that is the location of the “Office of Consumer-Focused Government.” This is the title of the office commissioned by Governor Haslam to carry out his privatization plan. I find the title of this office disconcerting. When the government is so dominated by business that it ceases to view residents of the state as citizens and focuses more on them as consumers (or as taxpayers, as is often the case), there can be an imperceptible shift in attitude towards self-interest. Rather than citizens of a community, folks with a stake and loyalty to our places, we can become simply purchasers of goods and services. This split makes it much easier to consider profits and savings over people and security.

After being told the Office of Consumer-Focused Government did not exist, we began chanting, “Tennessee is not for sale.” We were told we were being disruptive. One of our spokespersons responded that what we were doing is hardly disruptive compared to outsourcing thousands of jobs. They finally agreed to send a representative of the office down to hear our concerns if we would go outside. Although there was much grumbling, we complied and left the building. After some time, we were joined by three representatives of the office (suddenly it did exist!). What followed were clear, funny, desperate, and heartfelt messages from members of our group asking for answers and pleading for their jobs. One woman told us her husband had recently died, and she wouldn’t make it if she was laid off or had reduced benefits. Another had worked at University of Memphis for 28 years and never made more than $10/hour. Her retirement was $400/month. Another asked for $15/hour, noting that if they really wanted to help the economy, that’s the way to do it. “I love to shop!” she said.

Many questions were asked, and the crowd demanded answers. After so many statements from diverse people in church and street clothes, the contrast was stark as the blond, White, business-suit-wearing woman took the microphone and delivered a canned response. “We have answered all your questions during previous legislative sessions and if you want, you can file freedom of information requests to access transcripts. We have noted what you have said today. I have a meeting, thank you for expressing your concerns.” The crowd booed and yelled angrily at her, “You didn’t answer anything!”

Where you’re from matters.

I know that where you’re from matters. That’s one of the major points of this blog. But it matters a LOT when you’re talking to state legislators. I was with two life-long residents of Tennessee as we went from office to office sharing our flier and asking legislators to do something to slow down or stop Haslam’s plan. One of the guys I was with, Troy Smith, a professor from Tennessee Tech, had known one of the legislators, Paul Bailey, since they were in the 5th grade. The other guy I was with, Hugh Piercey, a retired janitorial worker, had met with his state representative in the past and they knew some of the same people. The possibility for this “small talk” was key in gaining deeper access to the people we sought to petition. Being from Kentucky, I felt less able to convince the politicians to listen.

So luckily I wasn’t alone. We talked to 3 legislators and 3 legislative assistants. Most expressed opposition to Haslam’s plan, although one senator said nothing could be done about it. We pointed out several actions the Senate and House could take. “Well, I’ll look into it,” he said. We talked to Senator Mae Beavers’ assistant and she implied that anything Haslam was in favor of, she was against. So far so good. The last person we talked to was Ryan Williams, a representative from Cookeville. We were invited in during a conference call he was in with engineers, yet he gave us his attention. Unfortunately, he talked a lot of circles around what we were getting at. He wanted to look carefully at how the outsourcing could save the state money. He was having lunch with the governor, and promised to bring our concerns to him, which was nice. But I was getting angry sitting there listen to him not answer our questions. I suppose I should have been forceful, but it seemed better to let the local guys keep talking with him.

Outsourcing

All day I was talking with the people around me about Haslam’s plan, which would replace state workers with contract employees of the winning bidder. There would be 10,000 state jobs replaced. Many of the same workers would be rehired, but not necessarily in the same location and with fewer benefits. When you replace a long-time state worker with minimum-wage, no benefits jobs, you trade loyalty and tacit knowledge for an unstable, high-turnover workforce. The connection people have to a place comes in part through a job that makes them feel part of who they are. With state jobs, it is part of who they are as Tennesseans. The plan would send millions of dollars to an out-of-state contractor. I know developing governance and budgeting is difficult. But there are a few lies and misconceptions that support moves to privatization.

  1. Private companies work better than government. This idea has been perpetuated as common knowledge, starting most strongly with Ronald Reagan, but continued as a talking point since. Humans run private companies and government, so human error is rife in both institutions. Some say government jobs are too secure, so people become complacent. But depending on the person, the tenuousness of competition is just as detrimental to quality of work as an assurance you’ll keep your job. And in Tennessee’s plan on the books and in the news to privatize, there are no safe jobs in government unless you’re a politician in a gerrymandered district.
  2. Privatization will “save taxpayers money.” In one sense this could be true in the long run if we only examine cost expended on workers. If the quality of the work we receive for the cost is included, if the value of investing state dollars back into the communities from whence the taxes came, if the value of a stable workforce is included, if we take into account the difficulties of the hiring process and downtime caused by training, privatization is not cheaper.
  3. Citizens should focus more on return on investment of their tax dollars than the health of their community. By using terms like “taxpayers” and “consumers” rather than “citizens,” politicians have distracted us from the connections we all have to each other in our communities. Outsourcing removes responsibility to community. As members of our government, it is all our responsibility to ensure its functioning. What the privatization plan does is funnel citizens’ taxes to corporations. We trade connection  and loyalty to communities for efficiency. But the record shows efficiency means facilities that are less well maintained.
  4. “We need to tighten our belts.” This is a lie in that people only say it when they want to cut specific budget items. It is a good way to see what policies people think are unnecessary. But when politicians say we need to cut this or that, it is no more a fact than any other when it comes to deciding how a state that levies taxes should spend and redistribute that money.

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