I just read a letter posted by Josh Marshall over at TPM from one of his readers who doesn’t seem to understand why public employee unions are necessary. I’d like to help him understand his error through a simple thought exercise:
Think of a politician.
Think of some of the smarmy, corrupt, duplicitous, despotic twits who’ve managed to game the democratic system well enough to achieve real power in their communities.
I’m not even talking about the historical figures like Boss Tweed. I’m talking about politicians of a recent vintage.
Think of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who’s abused his office to do everything from putting Steven Seagal in a tank on a raid to allowing his officers to murder a veteran to regularly violating the civil rights of Latino citizens to wasting tax dollars on a frivolous “investigation” of the President’s birth certificate (certainly a pressing concern for the people of Maricopa County!).
Think of Kwame Kilpatrick, the former Mayor of Detroit. Not only did he abuse his office in ways so despicable as to earn their own extensive section on his Wikipedia page, he is now accused of selling out the city’s pension fund to investment firms who lavished him with what some would call gifts but sensible folks recognize as outright bribes.
Think of the California city of Bell, where the calculated and deliberate fraud committed by members of the city government bilked taxpayers out of millions of dollars.
Every Atlantan remembers Bill Campbell, who beat the rap on the charge of taking kickbacks from builders but got pinched for evading taxes on the cash.
Or just name any elected governor of Illinois for the last few decades, and you’ll probably have a good example.
These are just the names that sprung to my mind after a morning beer on an Amtrak train to Providence. And should we even mention the rampant corruption that happens in presidential administrations?
My point is this: Without public employee unions, government workers would be at the mercy of these people. The sometimes corrupt, nepotistic, amoral assholes who often run governments at all levels would be able to hire and fire employees at all levels without a care for merit or fairness. Remember that scene in The Godfather: Part II where the grocer fires Vito because the local mob boss wants a job for his nephew? Now imagine that situation, only the job in question is one that oversees critical city services.
The person who wrote to Josh also raised a couple of other issues. For instance, don’t the long lines of applicants for openings mean we’re paying police officers too much? Aren’t public school teachers who get summers off really more like part-time employees who get paid like full-time ones?
When I was in high school around 2000-01, the local Army recruiter was someone I spent a lot of time talking with. He told me that he had been in the Army for eight years, then taken a discharge and become a police officer. While he was in the Army for that first hitch, nobody ever took a shot at him. Within two years as a cop, he’d been under fire twice. He went back to the Army because, at that time, it seemed like a safer occupation.
Firefighters run into burning buildings to save lives. Can anyone really claim to have a good way to monetize that?
And the argument about teachers being glorified part-timers is more than just laughable on its face. It’s insulting. One public school teacher will have anywhere from 20-30+ hormonal semi-humans to grapple with on a daily basis, with no real help and nowhere near adequate resources. They will spend their evenings grading homework assignments and quizzes and tests, and they will wake up at dark-thirty every morning to be there when our children walk in the door. They will buy supplies for their classroom out-of-pocket. They will shepherd our children through tornado warnings and power failures. They will tend to their cuts and bruises. They will comfort them in times of loss, and help them learn to cope. They will, in short, be surrogate parents for a classroom full of kids. I don’t think you could pay me enough to do that, and those who are called to that profession deserve salaries that reflect the monumental pressures of that job. (Hell, want a way to think of it like an MBA? Okay, a teacher is the CEO of a 30-person small business entirely staffed by untrained and clumsy amateurs: what should that job pay?)
Now, yes, there will be moments where incompetent employees are firmly encamped in public jobs and need to be removed. In a system that encourages collaboration between public sector unions and administrators, that should be achievable. But as long as public unions are branded the enemy as opposed to potential partners--as long as a large swath of the political community tries to demonize public workers for trying to protect themselves from the capricious actions of corrupt or ignorant officials and earn fair wages for their labor--there won’t ever be a time when everyone can focus on simply providing the best services in the fairest, most efficient way.
Wisconsin was just a symptom of a larger condition. Public sector workers are being made into scapegoats for the failures brought on by people who, at their core, don’t believe any form of government can ever really be effective. Those people are the real roadblocks to good government, and they’re who we need to be on guard against.
Simply put, never trust someone to really care about making government work better, if that person makes it their business to attack and scapegoat police officers, fire fighters, teachers, or other public employees. Teachers didn’t bankrupt the states. First responders didn’t ruin the economy. And hurting them, stealing their pensions, and taking away their rights to unionize won’t make our country any better. Quite the opposite.
Disclaimer: I work for the AFL-CIO, but I don’t speak for it. These thoughts are my own, as a union member and a progressive.