13 March 2011

Do public employees have rights?

It's old news by now, but the Wisconsin Republicans figured out a way, by removing any appropriation of money from the bill stripping public-employee unions of their collective bargaining rights, to get it through the state senate without the quorum that had been denied them by the Democrats' flight to Illinois. The Democrats intend to challenge the constitutionality of the law, but I doubt they'll succeed. Meanwhile, organized labor vows revenge -- some too literally and personally for the federal government's taste -- but seems content to wait, not counting whatever recall efforts are under way, until next November. That is, they intend their revenge to be political, and they probably intend the Democratic party to be their instrument. That strategy strikes me as clueless. The unions must realize that their intimate alliance with the Democrats at least partly explains Republican hostility toward them. At the same time, it reflects a blind faith in Democrats that is probably unjustified. In our imminent age of austerity, public employees err in placing their faith in either major party. It's only a matter of time before Gov. Cuomo of New York or one of his Democratic peers elsewhere decides that cracking down on public employees would be both pragmatic and, alas, popular. What may be needed, alarming as it may sound to the rest of us, is a party of the bureaucracy, a labor party with public employees at its core but a commitment to restoring a sense of common cause to workers in public and private sector alike. For such a group, electoral politics should be practised alongside old-school labor militancy. It should not wait until next year to take action against its enemies. To wait until then to reassert its rights is a virtual capitulation to Gov. Walker. If the new law is such an offense as workers claim, it should be resisted now, and not exclusively through electoral channels.

Part of public employees' problem right now, I suspect, is that the rest of the public perceives them as part of the "political class." Just as there's hostility to the notion of "professional politicians" making a permanent living through elected offices, that hostility has probably bled over to color public employees as a parasite class, people assumed to make more than they're worth by exploiting politics while "we the taxpayers" suffer. It's as if we think no one should make a career of public service, as if public service can only corrupt a person, especially if that person gets some uppity sense of entitlement, some notion that he should get more than a minimal wage from a penny-pinching public. Maybe we should have rotation in office in the bureaucracy like we have in elected offices to keep most Americans happy, so you never have to give a public worker a raise. Since a desire to perform public service is probably suspicious, perhaps public workers should be recruited from the general workforce after the manner of the old military draft. They could be placed under quasi-military discipline, with collective bargaining out of the question once and for all. Maybe prisoners can do some of the work.

Do these modest proposals strike you as absurd? Maybe you'd rather concede that public employees have just as much right to make a secure living, and as much right to negotiate for decent working conditions, as other workers. Perhaps you'll allow that they shouldn't have less rights than other workers just because they work for taxpayers. You might even begin to think that quality of service should count more than cost, considering the essential work many public employees do. Don't you want the best public service possible? Doesn't that require incentives to attract the best people? Or do ordinary Americans share the sentiment once associated with one of the most hated American capitalists, who once said simply, "The public be damned!" The problem with such lofty thought is that the public isn't simply some "sector" of society. The public is all of us, and if you damn the public "sector," you damn yourselves, as time is sure to tell.


TiradeFaction said...

Unions continued utter dependence on the "Democratic" Party is frankly, mind boggling. The Democrats nationwide have been just as responsible as Republicans for the decline in trade unionism in the US. Do they not remember Clinton and his complete support for NAFTA, which was a major blow to unions nation wide? And as you point out, it's only a matter of time until someone like Gov. Brown or Cuomo go after collective bargaining in their respective states, and given the Democrat's anti union record, that probably will be soon.

Anonymous said...

" The unions must realize that their intimate alliance with the Democrats at least partly explains Republican hostility toward them."

This is one of the most absurd notions I see being consistently pouted about from the right. Considering their long history of working against the best interests of the labor class, why would unions support repugnicans in the first place? But then they levy the same charges concerning "minorities". Since the right has staunchly nearly every measure to ensure equal rights, women's rights, etc. and considering their close association with militant white supremacy, why would any minority support the repugnicans? Since the two-party system has been inculcated into the American consciousness, and feel they only have two options to choose from, repugnicans have to truly ask themselves: "Why should the people we stand against NOT vote for the political party we stand against". After all, the enemy of my enemy is my constituent.

Anonymous said...

I think the idea of a political party based on unions is actually a pretty interesting concept...

Imagine if such a party were to gain enough seats in government, the corporations would have to negotiate with them political at the same level the unions are forced to negotiate with corporations at economically.

I think you would definitely see a change in the American political machinery. Perhaps it IS time for the unions to remind the democrats just how much owe the unions by NOT voting for them in the next election, but rather voting for themselves.

Samuel Wilson said...

To the extent that the Democratic party has an overall agenda that isn't the same as, and in some cases may conflict with the interests of organized labor, unions' identification with Democrats will do them additional damage in Republican eyes, even if we agree that most Republicans will be automatically hostile to labor. Unions may desire instinctually to ally with the strongest opposing force in the face of a Republican offensive, but as with every Democratic consitutency, a sense of dependence upon Democrats ultimately benefits Democrats only.