It had never occurred to the Embrees that firefighters and nurses could be unnecessary. They thought of themselves as linchpins of the community — and one of the biggest rewards of their jobs was knowing that the rest of the world thought so, too.
“Kids go trick or treating in firemen’s costumes,” Jim Embree, 48, said. “Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts come and take tours and sit in the truck and blow the horn. People talk to you in the grocery store. I’m used to positive interactions with people. So it shocked me. To hear people speak in a public venue like I’m a Rockefeller . . . it shocked me.”
In heated debates in Ohio, as well as Wisconsin, Indiana, New York and other budget-strapped states, unions and the benefits their workers receive have become emblematic of the fiscal excesses of governments. Governors and legislators, with the vocal support of large blocs of voters, have sought to curb the escalating cost of salaries, pension and health benefits that have ballooned budgets across the country.
Those efforts, and the resulting restrictions on unions and their workers, have ripped apart how many public workers think of themselves and their role in society. The effect is doubly so for families like the Embrees, with two union workers and a shared identity wrapped around their jobs.
There’s no data here to show just how many of those families there are, but they’re not hard to find. At Canal Winchester Middle School southeast of Columbus, an unofficial poll of employees gathered in the library on a recent school day found seven spouses of other public workers: a librarian married to a firefighter; an eighth-grade math teacher married to a court bailiff; a gym teacher married to a sixth-grade teacher; and so on.
One of those was Heather Baugess, 44, a librarian married to a firefighter. Baugess said she was less upset about proposals that would require her to work longer and receive less when she retires than she is about how people view her and her husband.
“It’s not the money,” said Baugess, who earns about $60,000 and whose husband, Larry, earns a bit more. “We’re comfortable. It’s the teacher-bashing. It’s the negativity. I guess I live in my own perfect would where everybody supports teachers and everybody supports firefighters. I don’t want that to change.”
How Much is Too Much?
The divide between those who back union workers and those who don’t comes down to a matter of perception over what qualifies as modest and what is too much.