n March, a union representing thirty thousand support workers in the Los Angeles Unified School District called a three-day strike to demand higher wages. The action got the support of the teachers’ union, which asked its thirty-five thousand members to honor the strike and not cross the picket line. Members agreed, and for three days sixty-five thousand workers stayed home, shutting down the school district and eventually winning contract victories for both unions.

That strike is only the most recent and widely reported strike among public employees. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that there was a 50 percent increase in strike activity in 2022 over the previous year. Across the United States and indeed the globe, public sector workers are engaging in strikes. Beyond US borders, garbage workers in France and transit workers in Germany have walked off their jobs, and government workers in Cyprus joined a three-hour general strike there. Even the UK’s National Health Service — still popular despite a post-Thatcher turn toward privatization — has been roiled by strikes of nurses and doctors.

Ostensibly, the reasons for these strikes are wages that haven’t kept up with inflation, massive staffing shortages leading to overworked and stressed staff, and constricted resources, for example the lack of school supplies causing teachers to buy their own.

But there’s also something much deeper at play regarding the role of public institutions in thriving democracies and healthy economies. These strikes reflect the tension between what we say we value and what things really cost; the persistent myth that the private sector — propelled by profit-driven, supposedly inherent “efficiency” — can do nearly everything better and cheaper; and the preference for using market mechanisms to provide essential public needs or leaving them to the market as consumer commodities.

In the face of the neoliberal triumvirate of privatization, deregulation, and austerity, public sector workers can put up a much-needed resistance. And they’re beginning to. We leaders across the board can stand up not just to support them as public sector workers, but to defend the very idea that what they do is an expression of who we truly are as a society.