Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tuesday Rant: Who is Responsible for Unions Getting Fucked?



Bill Maher has a recurring feature on his show this season called "dispatches from the bubble," wherein he spoofs the Fox News information bubble that Republicans live in. But clearly, there is a liberal bubble as well. There are things that liberals are completely deluded about. One is the relative popularity of unions among the American population.

 To recap, Wisconsin Governnor Scott Walker survived his recall, after having signed a bill that, among other things, sharply curtailed public sector workers' rights to collectively bargain.  And let me say up front, I think the guy's an asshole, and that that's a terrible thing to fucking do.  But he scored a win, no doubt, in the swing state of Wisconsin, and it's probably going to be repeated throughout the country.  At the very least, I'd say that public sector unions are headed for the shit throughout the red states.  But what's strange to me is that, if my Facebook feed is to be believed, nobody on the Left in America seemed to have any clue that this was coming.  So you get a lot of talk about super pacs, and voter suppression, and an attempt to rob Democrats of their chief funding source, but you don't hear a word about all the work unions have done over the years to make themselves incredibly unpopular among the public.

Chief among them are the teachers' unions, which have been a nuisance in this country for decades.  I became aware of it in the early 90's--let's call it 1992, although it might have been a little later--from a Newsweek (or maybe Time) article.  Keep in mind that that was approximately the time when I began paying attention to politics whatsoever, so the problem probably goes back much further than that, but let's say it doesn't.  20 years is a long fucking time to not get your shit together.  The teachers unions (which are the public face of public sector unions, they're what everyone thinks of when they think of this issue) have been an obstacle to every attempt to reform schools, whether it's through merit pay, charter schools, vouchers, parental triggers, or any other idea short of hiring more teachers and paying them more (not that those are bad ideas) (and not that the other ideas are necessarily the solutions to our problems, but that's a whole other post--suffice to say that we can't begin to know what works if we never try anything).  Worse, they make it impossible to get rid of bad teachers.  You probably saw the L.A. Weekly piece from a few years ago entitled Dance of the Lemons, which pointed out how few teachers ever get fired, because, no matter how egregious their offenses, the unions will spend a practically infinite amount of resources defending the teachers.  So instead, the district treats the teachers like the Catholic Church treats pedophile priests, shuffling them around to different schools, or occassionally paying them off to the tune of $50,000 or more just to get rid of them.  Or perhaps you've heard the This American Life episode about the NYC school district's "rubber room," where teachers under investigation report to do nothing all day and receive a paycheck.  These things do not tend to make unions particularly popular among the general public.  And it's not like this is some big secret.  I'm sure there are many ways the unions could have addressed these problems over the last 20 years.  At some point, they have to take some of the blame for their own coming demise.

I wonder if it was even possible for them to change.  I've long thought that the problem with unions was the same as the problem with corporations.  Corporations (as described in the great documentary, The Corporation), are amoral entities.  There is no one at a corporation who can make a moral decision.  They are driven only by profit and growth.  Similarly, I don't think unions have much of a collective conscience either.  Their only drive is to fight for the benefits of the workers.  Which is a good thing!  I'm glad I've got one looking out for my benefit!  But come on...

Also, consider this: the liberal position is that the government can actually function for the public  good.  The right wing position is that it never can.  If there are situations where unions are fighting against making government programs work for the public good, then a stance that backs the unions 100% of the time over their public employer is antithetical to the liberal position, as demonstrated by some of the examples above.  In other words, if you believe public institutions can benefit the public, then you have a vested interest in making public institutions work for the public, rather than having the unions call the shots.  Now, in many cases, as I'm sure many on the left would argue, who knows how to make the institutions functional better than the employees providing the services?  TRUE!  In the case of teachers, since they are the example we're using, more latitude in the classroom is a practical goal to work toward.  What I question is the idea that teachers unions are really fighting for that.  In fact, if they are, they're completely incompetent at it, as teachers seem to have less latitude in the classroom all the time.  But I don't fool myself into believing that fighting for a pension program that my state simply can't afford, or fighting to keep the worst teachers in the classroom, is fighting for The Children.  Please.  Again, it's not that I'm questioning the right of any worker to collectively bargain with their employer.  But it should be pretty clear why these unions aren't enjoying the popularity that many on the left seem to think they do.

And I say this as a public employee who is currently staring down the barrell of ten weeks of unemployment due to budget cuts.  I sure as fuck ain't happy about that.  But at some point, you have to ask what the hell you can do.  If there ain't no money, their ain't no money.  And really, if you look at the bill Scott Walker signed, a lot of the changes were reasonable things that you could expect to happen to public sector employees during a recession.  I still think it's some low-down shit to try to strip employees of collective bargaining rights, and it bugs me that the majority in Wisconsin don't agree, but I can totally see why people would be pissed off at unions now.

Bonus reading from some people who can actually write intelligently on this subject: Conor Friedersdorf and Wil Wilkinson.

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