Friday, February 18, 2011

Union Dos -- And Don'ts

When can and should Democratic politicians take the political risk of taking on unions? When their members are paid by taxpayers through local and state governments that are broke or nearly bankrupt. The "Economist":
[P]rivate- and public-sector unions really are different creatures. And it is becoming increasingly clear that their interests aren't necessarily aligned. A cash-strapped state that can't afford to, say, maintain or improve its physical infrastructure obviously can't afford to contract with private-sector union crews to do the work.


MK said...

I don't know what columnist Will Wilkinson's background is but he doesn't seem to understand the role of public sector unions. I don't belong to a union. I'm a federal employee, not a state employee. But I have observed how unions have operated in some federal agencies such as NARA. Their value isn't on the wage issues but in the workplace issues.

When you publishyed your article about cutting Nixons tapes in the American Spectator in the late 1990s, do you know who spoke out for the Nixon's project's archivists in the form of a letter sent to the magazine? Not management. A union official at NARA. To understand why that is, a columnist such as Wilkinson would have to understand the political pressures that can be brought to bear in federal agencies. A union's greatest value is in providing a counter to the Fred Malek's when they come Jew counting. That's not a financial issue. That's an integrity issue.

As to the financial aspects in the states (where conditions vary, of course), I predict that an Andrew Cuomo will end up accomplishming more than a Scott Walker type. It's because Democrats aren't hampered by a base that exudes anger, talks only in terms of money and fears empathy on workplace issues. What a reformer has to do is to convey a sesnse of belief in fairness. People will go a long way in the face of that whereas the natural human reaction to being demonized is to fight back. Look at me. What did I do after hearing federal pay would be frozen? I increased my contribution to the Combined Federal Campaign -- the charitiable giving effort we feds participate in -- to the point that my paycheck in 2011 is a little smaller, due to a larger charitable contrribution being withheld from it at my request than in 2010. That's what you do when you trust your bosses, as I do mine.

A Walker type of Governor doesn't get it. What he should have done is scrupulously avoided linking bargaining over non-financial workpalce issues to budget cutting. And he definitely should have avoided separating out public safety workers, inplying me valued them more than female dominated professions such as teaching. That just plays into the cartoon of the hypermasculine, overcompensating right winger. Not good. Not wise. No wonder he's created a public relations nightmare. He probably won't be the only one. What the GOP needs is Jack Kemp type governors, not ones who spout the same angry psuedo tough guy rhetoric one hears on talk radio. A Kemp or a Cuomo could work through the complexities. An angry ranter playing to a small base can't.

Fr. John said...

Thanks, MK. I imagine a lot of governors are watching the Wisconsin circus carefully. Some points in response to your thoughtful post:

Touche on unions as advocates on matters unrelated to compensation as well as Walker scapegoating them on non-financial questions. I'm sure some governors would respond that unions are capable of giving as good as they get when they deploy soft money during campaigns.

The federal government is lucky to enjoy the trust of those who react as you did to the pay freeze, especially because it it's all symbol and little savings compared to the dimensions of the problem. Do I understand correctly that federal unions have little or no leverage when it comes to federal employee pay? How about pensions? If so, I'll bet governors are jealous.

If Cuomo (and Brown in California) do better on this front, my guess is that it will have more to do with their being Democrats (Nixon goes to China) than tone and pitch. Gov. Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican and no demagogue, made no progress with the Democratic-controlled legislature when it came to public employee unions.

And here's an odd thing: An old-fashioned Republican fiscal hawk gets by with his relatively moderate positions, and attracts a lot of presidential buzz for a first-term governor, because his combative rhetoric reassures Republicans:

Thanks again.

MK said...

Federal unions do bargain on some pay and benefits related issues, although that usually is on issues related to performance bonuses rather than base pay. Based on my time at NARA, their main value is in actions taken in non-financial areas, such as disciplinary issues, performance management, workplace safety, availability of needed training, etc. Employees who belong to unions can be very useful in mediation and facilitation of some issues.

I see your point about Arnold Schwarzenegger and tone, as his "girly men" remarks aside, he didn't come across as one of those eyerollingly comical "to feel like a man, I have to shout and pound my fist and project anger all the time" types. The latter approach generally undercuts whatever an official is trying to do, because it makes people like me think, "wow, the target needs more legal and regulatory protection to guarantee fairness rather than less."

Fewer rights mean you're dependent in the workplace on core values such as decency, fairness, and integrity in action. You don't want an environment where a Jew counting Fred Malek leans on political appointees. Or a Monica Goodling does Nexis searches to see what potential *civil service* rather than political hires think on various political issues.

At least to me, hyped up anger and fist pounding signals fairness and integrity are unlikely to be present. A much better approach would be to use some empathy, to say, "I value what you do guys, we couldn't do what we do without you. But we're in an awful fix now so we gotta sit down and talk about solutions."

That's where talk radio and cable really hurts the right. It makes it seem to me as if GOP issues are all about punishment and hatred of non-Republicans which in the case of elected officials is not always the case. The angry talk radio shows do conservatism a huge injustice in that sense, signalling lack of confidence in its principles which need not be sold as mechanims for punitive action and payback.

I'm not an expert on California issues but it seems to me as however much he tried, Arnold's hands were tied by intransigence on both sides (voters being too selfish to allow tax increases, some employees being too selfish to see that they needed to contribute more). Too much magical thinking on both sides for him to overcome.

MK said...

John, you probably follow more conservative commentary than I do. My favorite pundits (David Frum, David Brooks, Kathleen Parker and the fiscally conservative but bravely independent on social issues Andrew Sullivan) don't align with the big talk radio bloviators, such as Limbaugh. Have you seen anyone on the right point out how tactically weak Scott Walker's references to the National Guard were, in the context of the budget cutting issues in Wisconsin? Really a dumb move, especially when you're fighting people in such female dominated professions such as teachers. As was the exception for public safety workers.

I'm not sure the more conformist talk radio show guys understand how poorly some of this hypermasculinity comes across. They're missing the metamessages. Police, firefighters, the troops, NASCAR, hooray. Teachers, social workers, anyone who tries to help poor, disadvantaged women, boo. Silly stuff. And Scott Walker has not excuse for not understanding that.

Even on abortion, for which I never spell out my position but do point out that First Ladies such as the older and younger Barbara Bush have offered more nuanced views than the GOP party platfrom, is cast in such female unfriendly terms by a lot of right wing bloviators as to make me just tune them out. It's all about the end of the process rather than the beginning in which men who denounce abortion largely seem to dodge their own role and reasons for acting as they do. I don't think I've ever seen a right wing radio or tv bloviator say, "you know, we could reduce abortions best by exercising better impulse control and using protection when we turn to the women in our lives for our fun." No, that's too hard.

So you get things like the ridiculous measure in one state that required the posting of detailed data for women. Totally lame. Sarah Palin could have used her preganncy after 40 (and her seeming pregnancy when she married Todd), as well as Bristol's situation, to talk about impulse control and natural and artificial contraception. Instead, she just totes around that poor baby -- which she and Todd could have avoided conceving by acting more responsibly -- and takes the easy way out on the issue. None of which helps the GOP. And people like Walker bleat about calling out the National Guard to use against teacher's unions. (Some have suggested he meant he would use them to fill in for prison guards, but he's never apologized to the teachers.) Dumb move. And one which just makes me whether some of these issues aren't about principle, they're about making the speaker feel "like a man." Given the accompanying fear of dialogue and empathy, that's largely impossible to unravel. So for me, the doubts will remain.

Fr. John said...

Thanks, MK. I don't watch or listen to much political commentary. Sometimes the TV is on when I'm doing something else. My information comes mainly from the sources I write about.

I don't agree with Sarah Palin's views by and large. But she and her husband obviously love Trig and consider him a gift and blessing.

MK said...

I don't doubt that she and Todd (of whom I don't have much impression except he comes across to me as a pretty dull sort) love Trig. But I do believe he was the result of an unplanned pregnancy. Most half way educated people know that there's a higher risk of Down's syndrome babies after 40. You either use protection, abstain, find means of dealing with the issue that don't place the women at risk of pregnancy, or say, "we know what we're about to do could result in a pregnancy, we'll take our chances."

Rather than parading Trig around as a prop, and gushing about how "good looking" she thinks Todd is, I would use the opportunity to say to people, "Actions have consequences. When Todd and I took the actions that resulted in my becoming pregnant, we weren't thinking about making a baby. Since we didn't take steps to avoid a pregnancy, including abstinence at that time of month, which we could have, we've learned to live with the result." That's the sort of honesty about how humans behave -- and how pregnancies occur -- that you rarely hear about in public life. She's not brave enough to do it.

Fr. John said...

Thanks, MK. I agree that religious and political leaders should take more sensible positions on contraception. I disagree that Trig's birth confers any special responsibility on the Palins in this regard.

MK said...

I normally wouldn't, either, except she uses the poor baby as a prop. All candidates do to some degree -- I'll have to write a blog post some time about that new book about Mrs. Nixon and how hard her life (and that of other First Ladies) can be. But Sarah Palin just did it way too much on her book tour to the point of making me laugh. I say, keep the kids out of it if you can't be brave in your public policy statements, don't use them when you think it can help you and avoid the tougher related issues. I actually think Palin is a model of poor impulse control in many areas of her life -- unplanned pregnancies that resulted in her bearing her two sons; shooting off her mouth like a high school "mean girl" on any issue that comes up; failing to rein in her daughters when they taunt other kids on Facebook. She's terrible for the GOP for that reason as much as for her divisiveness and lack of depth.

You can get away with politicians who are models for poor impulse control if your party doesn't rely so much on finger wagging on issues of personal conduct. But you can't if it does. It all just becomes laughable and people such as I just stop listening. Palin doesn't understand that. Neither does Todd, apparently, since he is said to be her closest advisor. A better person would handle the spotlight better and tackle tough issues. She's just weak and narcissistic, there's no point in my expecting something of her she is inacable of doing. The reason I brought her up was to show that Scott Walker's big guy posturing doesn't occur in a vacuum, that there's a lot of avoidance in both parties of tough issues, including in the party of self described "personal responsibility."