Yeah, I got the memo. We progressives are supposed to be cryin’ in our soup this weekend. We’re supposed to be in mourning. The result of the Gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin is supposed to be a major disaster for the union movement, and a knockout blow to the unions that represent public employees.
Yeah, I’m in mourning alright. But I’m in mourning because, roughly five weeks after three people I know died, I lost yet another friend on Thursday. And so in a couple of days, I’m heading out to the left coast for yet another funeral. This death business is getting REALLY old.
But no, I’m not mourning the death of the union movement. Nor am I joining in the oy vay chorus of progressives who are chastising their fellow travelers in Wisconsin for choosing the wrong battle. The most famous such voice is Barney Frank, the soon-to-be-retiring Congressman from Newton – that’s Massachusetts, not Wisconsin. Frank should have known better. As a gay man, he of all people should know that sometimes in life, we don’t have a choice; we simply have to follow our hearts. And in this case, the progressives of Wisconsin hadn’t a choice. They had to follow their hearts and stand up to Governor Scott Walker, who was severely threatening collective bargaining rights for public employees.
Consider the situation from the standpoint of the threatened parties. They’re living in a country in which the distribution of wealth is becoming almost comical. No, it hasn’t reached Dickensian proportions yet, but the trend is clear. And that trend almost exactly parallels another trend – the drying up of the union rolls. As go the unions (and by “go,” I mean go away), so goes the middle class.
So what happens? Scott Walker sets out to balance his state’s budget on the backs of the unions. And not just any unions, the public-employee unions. The ones that represent teachers, fire fighters, police officers and prosecutors, among others.
You’ll forgive these people if they view themselves as public servants. But they are also well aware that for the last several decades, they’ve been in the cross hairs of many of the nation’s conservative mouthpieces. According to the ever-popular meme, public employees waltz into their offices every day, practice their trade with no accountability whatsoever, do a half-ass job at best, leave for the day well before their private-sector counterparts, and nevertheless collect bloated pay checks and ridiculous job benefits. And the best part is that they never have to worry about losing their jobs. In short, public employees are becoming known in popular consciousness in the same way that we used to think of “welfare queens.”
So you’ll forgive the public-employee union members if, on the day that Scott Walker was originally elected, they were already “mad as hell and not going to take it any more.” Walker punched them in the cheek, so what were they supposed to do? Turn it?
No, the unions who attempted to recall Scott Walker simply played their part in an ever-evolving drama known as the plight of the American Middle Class. In hindsight, they clearly lacked the power to bring the recall effort to a successful conclusion. But their efforts were less a power play than a primal scream. They know that we have problems in our society. We have problems with the out-of-control amount of income that is paid to the one percent. And we have problems with the widespread disrespect that is paid to our public servants. Walker balanced the budget without showing a sensitivity to those problems, so it was time to fight back any way they could, even if that meant bringing a knife to a gun fight.
I’m cool with what those unions did during the past year or so. The issue for me, though, is what should they do going forward.
There are many legitimate issues that conservatives have been raising about public employee unions over the decades. To me, though, the most important such issue is the difficulty that government managers have in firing employees who are not adequately doing their jobs. In the past, unions seem to be taking the position that the interests of their membership lies in ensuring that they have lifetime tenured positions. Sure, they can be fired or docked in pay, but only after their overworked managers go through a crucible that would have made Hercules pause. As a result, virtually all the bad teachers, lackadaisical cops, or uninspired prosecutors can keep their jobs, salaries and pensions, while their private sector analogues have long ago lost all three.
Is that really in the long-term interest of public employees? And perhaps more importantly, is that really in the long-term interest of the public those “servants” are supposed to serve?
It is tragic that so many Americans have been brainwashed to think that if a person works for the government, s/he must be either incompetent or lazy. That is unfair to the bazillions of public servants who don’t fit that stereotype. Unfortunately, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy to a degree, since it leads many of our most talented and ambitious young men and women to avoid the public sector. And what’s worse, those who enter into it may feel that giving a half-ass effort is fully acceptable.
Personally, I have put 27 years into government service, which is less than either of my parents put in. I am proud of that service. And even though I am not covered by a union, I support my colleagues who are. But that doesn’t mean I support all of the union’s policies. And I certainly don’t support the creation of what is, in essence, lifetime tenure for workers, no matter how accomplished or lousy they might be.
We public servants need to be lean and mean like everyone else. And then, when the next Scott Walker comes around, we can fight him with even more vim and vigor.
We still might not win, but that’s not the point. Sometimes, win or lose, you just have to fight.