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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.
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Comment Preferences

  •  And that's not to mention... (11+ / 0-)

    ...that pro-worker legislation doesn't just materialize out of thin air. Nothing worthwhile happens unless someone makes it happen, and the gains to workers' rights that have happened over the last century have been due to union members--public and private--who've taken it on themselves to improve the situations of all workers through political action and advocacy.

    "Speaking for myself only" - Armando

    by JR on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 09:18:36 AM PDT

    •  JR - you make some very valid points (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Wendys Wink

      However, progressive champions such as FDR are among the most ardent opponents of public employee unions. Many citizens, including Dems, worry that when public employee unions negotiate with elected officials they have supported the taxpayers are not well represented at the negotiating table.

      "let's talk about that"

      by VClib on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 09:40:46 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  That's not actually correct (4+ / 0-)

        FDR was not opposed to public employee unions, but thought--quite rightly--that they needed to take a different form and engage in different tactics than private unions. To wit:

        August 16, 1937.

        My dear Mr. Steward:

        As I am unable to accept your kind invitation to be present on the occasion of the Twentieth Jubilee Convention of the National Federation of Federal Employees, I am taking this method of sending greetings and a message.

        Reading your letter of July 14, 1937, I was especially interested in the timeliness of your remark that the manner in which the activities of your organization have been carried on during the past two decades "has been in complete consonance with the best traditions of public employee relationships." Organizations of Government employees have a logical place in Government affairs.

        The desire of Government employees for fair and adequate pay, reasonable hours of work, safe and suitable working conditions, development of opportunities for advancement, facilities for fair and impartial consideration and review of grievances, and other objectives of a proper employee relations policy, is basically no different from that of employees in private industry. Organization on their part to present their views on such matters is both natural and logical, but meticulous attention should be paid to the special relationships and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government.

        All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress. Accordingly, administrative officials and employees alike are governed and guided, and in many instances restricted, by laws which establish policies, procedures, or rules in personnel matters.

        Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees. Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable. It is, therefore, with a feeling of gratification that I have noted in the constitution of the National Federation of Federal Employees the provision that "under no circumstances shall this Federation engage in or support strikes against the United States Government."

        I congratulate the National Federation of Federal Employees the twentieth anniversary of its founding and trust that the convention will, in every way, be successful.

        Very sincerely yours,

        [To] Mr. Luther C. Steward, President, National Federation of Federal Employees, 10 Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C.

        Saying police officers shouldn't be able to go on strike isn't the same as saying they shouldn't be able to unionize. Not by a long shot.

        "Speaking for myself only" - Armando

        by JR on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 09:56:20 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  JR - that is certainly a more nuanced view (0+ / 0-)

          Thank you for the longer quote and the more nuanced view that it represents. However, it does not deal with the issue that many taxpayers, including Dems, believe that when unions bargain with elected officials they have supported the taxpayers have no representative at the table. In private company negotiations there is a clear adversarial view by the opposing parties and any result is an arms length negotiated solution.

          "let's talk about that"

          by VClib on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 10:14:38 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  That's what the diary intends to do. (4+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            VClib, allergywoman, JeffW, sandblaster

            Assuming that sentiment is valid, consider the alternative: public workers would have no means of self-protection, and public officials would have removed yet another check on their excesses and corruption.

            Ideally, as I said, we wouldn't even want much in the way of an adversarial relationship, but instead a collaborative one where both sides work to improve public services while ensuring that public servants are treated fairly. But that simply won't happen while public servants are made scapegoats for every failing of government by those who either don't believe in government at all or do but don't care to govern responsibly.

            "Speaking for myself only" - Armando

            by JR on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 10:23:25 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

        •  Same thing with other public employees... (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          JR, allergywoman, sandblaster, Eric Nelson
          Saying police officers shouldn't be able to go on strike isn't the same as saying they shouldn't be able to unionize. Not by a long shot.
          ...the last AFSCME contract I worked under for the City of Chicago had a no-strike clause. We had other ways of getting the point across. Now, Rahmbo is using attrition with his continuation of a hiring freeze: my section required a minimum of 5 people under the supervising engineer to handle the traffic engineering for 2,904 signalized intersections.

          Before I retired there were three.

          There are now 2.

          Thirteen months from now there will only be one.

          Drive carefully out there!

          Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

          by JeffW on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 10:18:14 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  JR - hopefully you can give me some answers (0+ / 0-)

      Rachael reported a few days ago that the AFSCME in Wisconsin has lost half of its paid membership. I recall legislation in Wisconsin that prohibited the state from collecting union dues through payroll deduction. Why did so many members drop out and stop paying their dues?

      "let's talk about that"

      by VClib on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 09:53:20 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Unions should begin to build a Labor Party. They (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    tgrshark13, JeffW, Hockeyray, sandblaster

    have milled around for decades, instead of progressing. I've been a union woman my entire life, but all I've ever seen is the unions milling around like a bunch of fuds complaining their shoes are too tight. Biggest mistake unions have made, is to believe the democratic party hold the same interests and concerns. T'was stupid to believe such drivel then and even more so now. Labor should stand alone, because no political party will stand with it.

    Hope has a hole in it when Republicans come, bringing shackles and sorrow; branding their greed on the backs of the poor. - Wendy Connors

    by Wendys Wink on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 09:43:50 AM PDT

    •  A Labor Party (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Wendys Wink, JeffW

      with any meaningful participation would pretty much put an end to any power the Dems enjoy at the national level.

      •  A Labor Party would stand alone, just like the (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        JeffW

        Democratic and Republican parties. I've been a Democratic all my life. Only difference between it and the Republicans, is that the Democrats respect the people enough to put on a condom before screwing them and then pulling out just before the people feel any change.

        Hope has a hole in it when Republicans come, bringing shackles and sorrow; branding their greed on the backs of the poor. - Wendy Connors

        by Wendys Wink on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 10:07:06 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Standing Alone is irrelevant (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Wendys Wink

          A labor party would cut into the democratic party without putting a dent in the Republicans. The Dems would lose elections and seats, not the Repubs.

          •  You're correct. I mis-read your message. It would (0+ / 0-)

            take a few decades to build a Labor Party, so Democrats would still win seats for quite awhile and only lose some as the Labor Party developed and grew. However, even the Republican Party would begin to lose seats over time too.

            Hope has a hole in it when Republicans come, bringing shackles and sorrow; branding their greed on the backs of the poor. - Wendy Connors

            by Wendys Wink on Thu Jun 07, 2012 at 10:25:58 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

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