Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 9, 2011

Street Justice

Filed under: Budgets and Spending — by Mark Chubb on March 9, 2011

Have the parallels between the street protests in the Arab Middle East and those occurring in the state capitols of Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and a growing number of other states struck you as chilling? On one had I am struck by the similarities while at the same time being taken aback by what distinguishes them from one another. In either event, the juxtaposition of these events has given me pause and no small cause for concern.

On one hand, a long-oppressed proletariat is marching for the overthrow of corrupt dictators who have systematically plundered their nations’ capital and resources with the aid and comfort of a powerful patron interested in maintaining the stability of the status quo ante for its own peculiar interests. On the other hand, we have the same thing but with different classes of people playing the parts assigned to others someplace else.

It is no small coincidence that the politicians here at home claiming to act for an oppressed public who are now turning on public servants no longer fear the financial clout of unions. The Citizens United decision allowed the sums of money available to candidates from corporations to leave union fundraising efforts in their dust. Unhappy simply being able to compete with unions that traditionally favor their Democratic opponents, some Republican governors and legislators now want to corner the market by stripping public employees of their bargaining rights.

The fecklessness of these politicians and their supporters comes as no surprise, but strikes me as practically unnecessary and particularly vindictive. I say this because it has been my observation in recent years that many public employees had already become the kinds of fiscal conservatives (and often also social conservatives) of the kind that typically vote Republican. As such, many local union members, particularly those working in public safety, were often finding themselves at odds with the political dispositions of their parent unions.

For awhile, once ardent trade unionist friends of mine who had of late taken up the Tea Party banner with the zeal of the newly converted were left wondering what happened when the dog they were walking turned, growled and showed its teeth. Now they are realizing that the dog was walking them, not the other way around, and they are coming around to the view that no one in elected office of either party can be trusted.

Many commentators have noted that public sector union membership now exceeds that of unions representing private sector workers. This has come about not through the growth of public employees’ unions, but rather as a result of the decimation of the American manufacturing sector and export sectors.

Others have noted that the authority to bargain collectively explains very little about the nature of public sector remuneration much less the stressed fiscal situations of particular state and localities. In fact, several industrial economists have noted that public employees are generally paid less than their private sector counterparts when you control for education and experience. At the same time, they generally enjoy better benefits whether or not they bargain collectively. In most instances, these benefits represent nothing more than what we once agreed should be available to all workers when it comes to health care and income security in one’s senior years.

In the Middle East, we have seen desperate dictators turn to violence to defend their positions and hold onto power. Is it any less violent for our elected leaders to act under color of law to humiliate their opponents and strip them of their rights?

I am well aware that unions have in many cases overstepped and bargained for conditions that now seem particularly generous in light of the country’s parlous financial condition. At the same time, these concessions came about when those on the other side of the table were all too willing to go along simply to get along rather than protecting the interests of the public they and their employees both served.

I can easily understand the dismay of unemployed workers who seeing their unemployment benefits and job prospects dry up see public officials holding onto much of what they have. At the same time, I am convinced that too many on both sides fail to appreciate the conditions facing the other. (My wife, for instance, was laid off from her public sector job as a city planner in June 2009, and has had exactly three interviews with prospective employers in the public or privat sectors since then despite having a graduate degree and 25 years of experience.)

At the same time, I am all too well aware that much of what has given the unions the power politicians now fear most did not come to them through the collective bargaining process, but rather through the ballot box. As such, the effort now underway to deny them the protection of collective bargaining rights previously granted by legislative fiat is nothing less than an effort to strip a group of citizens of the political power now readily accessible to every corporation in the country.

When I wrote about the remarkable resilience of the revolutionary movements springing up in the Middle East a few weeks ago, I noted how five metatrends I labeled local, simple, varied, open and connected contributed to the power of these movements. Here at home, the willingness of the Right to sharpen its message and distill the essence of its objectives down to a single-syllable rallying cry — CUT! — has made it possible to craft a similarly strong coalition of the willing among people of vastly different ideological persuasions. (Contrast this with the Obama’s retorts to change, hope and progress during the 2008 campaign. These required far more thought and assumed a complex set of shared ideals while still leaving room for varying applications and interpretations.)

The inability of the Left to craft a similarly pithy response and put their differences aside to defend their ideals makes it easy for opponents to suggest their opposition arises from self-interest alone. (Never mind that the Right usually sees self-interest not only as virtuous, but more importantly equates it with liberty.)

If politicians and the public are truly concerned about the future, we should be asking ourselves not only what we should cut, but also how we should spend what we have to maximize benefit to all. This would, of course, require us to decide where we would get the resources we need to make the investments in the future we want for ourselves and future generations. This means not only reprioritizing and reallocating what we already have, but also deciding how we will grow our economy and our revenues to get what we want. This clearly requires the kind of discourse that involves words with more than one syllable.

Pitting one group of public employees — or for that matter citizens — against another and suggesting that this will solve our problems is beyond cynical. If there’s any justice — and polls that suggesting the public thinks more highly of public servants than elected officials suggest this may be the case — those making the cuts will be the ones ultimately paying the price when their patrons realize we do need government.

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4 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 9, 2011 @ 2:46 am

Unions have always been about distribution of power and resources. The problem is that they are now percieved as greedy because of their relative powerlessness at the present time. The UNIONS when measured against the distortion of current income distribution makes their “take” look ridiculous compared to the top income tier. K-12 is desperately underfunded now overfunded. Do people think that non-union teachers will in fact be superior to those now serving at substandard wages given their education and hours?
And Mark disclosure–most of the Fire Service is volunteer but most of the highly trained FIRE SERVICE forces, including EMT and HAZMAT, are professional! Thoughts?

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 9, 2011 @ 2:49 am

Making a separate comment for almost entirely different issue–how does civil security for riots and civil disorders work in any particular community, or STATE or the Federal Government. DHS has not a clue as to its role in riots and civil disorders. Nor does FEMA? Is this important–important enough for me to write two different AGs about updating plans for civil security in riots and civil disorders since the creation of DHS and also writing several members of Congress. Have you read the successor to “Garden Plot” DoD plans for military support for civil authorities on riots and civil disorders recently?

Comment by john comiskey

March 9, 2011 @ 7:40 am

Capitalism is great but not compassionate AND unions like government are necessary evils.

Several years ago, I was recommended for a lauded internal position with NYPD. The recommender noted that I had chosen to remain with the organization despite having had the opportunity to earn substantially more in the private sector.

In many recent conversations with fellow actively serving and retired NYPD officials who fear and resent media and public condemnation of our pay and benefits. There is a concordance of opinion that the pay and benefits were/are contractual. In fact NYPD continues to recruit, in part, by advertising the core pay and benefit package. Most of the conversants are painfully aware that the city and nation are in fiscal trouble. All also recall times of prosperity when many of our private sector colleagues were the beneficiaries of great pay and bonuses -during those times no one seemed to criticizing the medium pay no bonus civil servant.

That said, I am a taxpayer and observer of abuses of the civil service system. The abuses should be addressed. Unions contributed and continue to contribute to the greatness of the USA. The Constitution acknowledges and IMHO celebrates the rights of groups and individuals to contract. I am willing to negotiate. I am not willing forfeit my right to negotiate.

The nation should renegotiate government starting with Congress who negotiates its pay and benefits with itself.

It is written, the first [elected officials] amongst us shall serve the last AND NOT the first shall inherit the earth.

So when the Unions protest –do so loudest at the polls.

Comment by danoc5803@aol.com

March 10, 2011 @ 11:58 am

Mark;

More pain to follow. Both institutions have shown a propensity for overt exploitation. Having never been part of a union, I cannot speak with any degree of expertise on their efficacy or lack thereof. However, from an observer point of view, while it is a necessity to ensure workers labor and human rights, the protection and/or privilege of due process it provides goes way beyond common sense. By all appearances, the contracted benefits provided rewards gaming a system under incredible duress and a vicious time bomb of unsustainable benefits.

The narrative is also not in the unions favor when they compare themselves to oppressed and murdered populaces and pay huge amounts of money to specific political organizations

Union dues are collected and distributed for a host of purposes. Among other things, they are used for operating costs, pay officers, hold meetings, organize and/or attend conferences, fund research, agitate, negotiate, and supply bodies for get out the vote operations.

But perhaps most important of all, union monies will fund, and union operatives will work for, candidates who support its positions on the issues. Surprisingly enough, these candidates are just about always Democrats.

On average, public sector unions such as AFSCME, NEA, and SEIU nationally give anywhere from 98 to 99% of their contributions to Democrats. Moreover, union contributions constitute a relatively large share of the monies Democrat candidates receive.

So the dialectic is muted and distorted by both political points of view, and their practical realities. And, in an ever growing entitlement centric culture, “fairness” plays a role in the perception that unions and their operations do not operate “cleanly” but do, as John pointed out has an air of corruption attached. Keep in mind that their contractual wages and benefits are universally vetted and approved. It’s the exceptions that create angst, fear and resentment as recently presented by media and public condemnation of pay and benefits.

Perhaps all the horror stories of custodians pulling six figure salaries and police and firemen reaping 3 and 4 times their annual salaries in retirements are the exceptions, not the rule. Or even the rubber room teachers costing NY upwards of $100M annually. These unfortunate blemishes create an overarching impression of corruption and mute the necessity and efficacy of the union

Hence, one can see Wisconsin and Ohio and now Idaho’s move on unions as not only necessary, but long over due.

Ultimately, there must be a universal re setting the dial and expectation across the government if we hope to correct what all experts and data says is an unsustainable future.

So as initiated this response; more pain to follow and there may be a point in this that tensions will heighten and an incident will occur that moves this relatively benign activity to some violent anti government and anti union activity.

The civil discourse/disturbance will be something we have not experienced in quite some time, if ever..

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