May 14, 2005


Union Leaders Scramble to Reverse Losses (RON FOURNIER, May 13, 2005, The Associated Press)

Divided and desperate, union leaders are looking everywhere _ from Ivy League classrooms to the "megachurch" pulpits of far-flung suburbia _ for ways to reverse a 50-year decline in membership that is tipping the balance of power in politics.

Labor's woes are a threat to the Democratic Party, because unions are the single-greatest organizing tool on the left side of the political spectrum. "If we can't reverse course, the future is very, very bleak," said Harold Ickes, an influential Democrat and labor ally.

Just the way the issue is framed tells you everything you need to know: in becoming nothing more than henchmen for one political party labor leaders abandoned their own constituents.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 14, 2005 3:11 PM

Labor's woes are a threat to the Democratic Party, because unions are the single-greatest organizing tool on the left side of the political spectrum. "If we can't reverse course, the future is very, very bleak," said Harold Ickes, an influential Democrat and labor ally.

Oh, rubbish.
Right now, unions are super-duper lefty organizers and get-out-the-vote-ers, but they aren't irreplaceable.
Just six months ago, wasn't everyone ooh-ing and ahh-ing over Rove's get-out-the-vote operation ?

If the GOP can do it without unions, so can the Dems.
Just take the GOP playbook, substitute Starbucks for churches as the rally points, and... Go !!

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at May 14, 2005 3:44 PM

Michael: You do realize that the Dems have been holding regular political rallies in churches for the past 20 years, right?

Posted by: David Cohen at May 14, 2005 4:03 PM

And this is a surprise? The unions have been losing membership since the mid-70s at least, with the trend accelerating and firming up during the Carter recession. No "union" candidate has polled well (in the Democratic primaries) since Walter Mondale.

The public sector unions are now more important to the Democratic party than the industrial unions, and that trend is accelerating as well (look where Howard Dean went for 'organized' support in 2003).

Posted by: jim hamlen at May 14, 2005 4:20 PM

Shared snobbishness can't substitute for old-line union solidarity. A party that defines itself by looking down its nose at the very people it purports to be looking out for isn't going anywhere.

Posted by: at May 14, 2005 5:25 PM

Public sector workers should not be allowed to Unionize.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 14, 2005 5:46 PM

Nonsense, David.

Not allowing classes of workers to unionize merely enables them to be exploited by management. Prior to public sector unionization, policemen, firemen, teachers, sanitation workers, etc were paid like crap. If you wanted to argue that there should be mandatory arbitration to deal with disputes and that public sector employees who deal with life and death should not be allowed to strike then maybe you have something.

Posted by: bart at May 14, 2005 6:09 PM

This is what happens when you are a political. The courthouse gang has an expression for it,"Live by the sword, die by the sword."

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 14, 2005 6:33 PM

This is what happens when you are a political. The courthouse gang has an expression for it,"Live by the sword, die by the sword."

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 14, 2005 6:34 PM

Unionize? yes. Vote? no.

Posted by: oj at May 14, 2005 6:46 PM

What was it your parents did again, bart?

Posted by: David Cohen at May 14, 2005 6:50 PM


My parents were public school teachers and my father was a military officer before he lost a leg in Korea. If I were you, since you are a lawyer, I would refrain from making implications about the parasitic nature of other people's occupations, given that yours is of less economic value than being a hit man, a pickpocket or an axe murderer, and of only marginally more value than being an elected official.

The problem is that these people perform, unlike lawyers, a necessary public service. They need to be compensated fairly, so that we get competent people to do the job. There is an old saying 'If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.' If we deny civil servants the right to organize, the possibility of their receiving a decent wage diminishes with results that inure to the detriment of society. Are there excesses? Of course, and my former UFT organizer father would agree that it should be easier to dump incompetent and criminal teachers. Thus, arbitration, or some simple CPI based elevator would make sense. If you want to argue about 'right-to-strike', fine, but then we have to deal with what happens when people are on strike and the necessary services don't get done.

Posted by: bart at May 14, 2005 7:08 PM

Bart: I honor your father's military service. Thank you for letting me know about it. It is, of course, completely irrelevant to the issue being discussed, as we would never allow a public employees union for something actually important, like serving in the armed forces.

You have clearly explained why unions are good for teachers. They get more money, do less work and can't be fired. Each of those is a reason that they are bad for school systems. The idea that, absent the beneficent union, school system administrators would be operating turn-of-the-century sweatshops [wait, give me minute, mmmmmm, sweatshops] is nuts.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 15, 2005 12:14 AM

David Cohen:

Yes... Mostly, black non-evangelistic churches.

Republicans like to buy overpriced coffee too, but Starbucks has a liberal feel to it. Are you attemting to argue that the Dems have a better lock on religious groups than the GOP has with evangelicals ?

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at May 15, 2005 12:57 AM

Not allowing classes of workers to unionize merely enables them to be exploited by management.

When the management is The People, I'm not clear why us exploiting them is better than the alternative, which is them exploiting us. The idea that there's a middle ground is pretty pollyanaish.

Posted by: Timothy at May 15, 2005 1:04 AM

A labor monopoly protected by law is economically unsound. Public sector unions with cumpulsory dues spent on politicians or public advocacy is one of the dumber things taxpayers put up with. A circle of corruption and innefficiency enshrined in the law effectively setting performance standards at the lowest common denominator. I think that everyone would agree that personal committment and pride in one's calling produces what quality there is in spite of the union. The left has effectively priced manufacturing labor out of the economy thus the push for the tax funded sectors which they believe to be unaffected by economic reality. It's the only growth area left. Pathetic.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford, Ct. at May 15, 2005 9:23 AM

Michael: The Dems are there for blacks, not Christians. Yes, they have a better lock on blacks than the Reps have on evangelicals. Bush got about 80% of the evangelical vote. If the Reps ever get to 20% of the black vote, the Dems (as currently constituted) will never win national office again.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 15, 2005 9:29 AM

So it's all about free markets until we get to public services. Put simply, if the government were to dictate the working conditions of teachers, or cops or any other group without a countervailing party, there would be massive exploitation. Anyone, who holds up the working and living conditions of the American military as an example of the munificence of a government which does not face union constraint, is pathetically ignorant of the quality of life faced by everyone in the military below O-6. Military people and their families make significant sacrifices to serve this nation and the way they are compensated and housed is a national disgrace. Retention rates are almost always a disaster by standards any other business would set.

The reality is that if teachers and police are not compensated properly, they leave the profession, and only the people of the lowest caliber will enter the professions. The State does not and has never cared about educational quality, and most parents don't have a clue about matters like scholarship, so schools that get transformed into little more than warehouses for the little snotnoses until they are old enough to get into the workforce is just fine with both. Even the minimal standards we have now would be non-existent, and flummery like NCLB will rule the day. In fact, politicians prefer the citizenry to be ignorant, they'll be easier to bamboozle.

Have civil service protections created problems? Of course and it should be easier to identify and fire the inept than it is. But the pre-civil service world was a nightmare with political payoffs and incompetence throughout the system. So, the question is how to fairly compensate people without a union, and the answer is some CPI-based index. If you want to allow organizing without the right to strike, then have a form of mandatory interest arbitration. It's not difficult.

Posted by: bart at May 15, 2005 11:14 AM


Yes, but it wasn't a nightmare. There's much to be said for the high turnover of a civil service based on election results.

Posted by: oj at May 15, 2005 11:28 AM

Bart: The idea of defending Unionizing as a free-market reform is ludicrous. It is almost as silly as giving anyone a guaranteed CPI inflater, which locks in too high salaries and removes any incentive to improve. The median salary of an elementary school teacher (i.e., someone with lots of patience, a bunch of phony degrees, but no need for more than a high school education) in Boston is $50,000.

The bottom line, of course, is whether schools were better before unionization or after? Care to make that argument, or are you just going to tell us about how hard it is today's uppity urban population? It's amazing anyone wants the job, let alone that they can't be pried out with a crowbar.

As for the military, I begrudge them nothing. Pay them all munificently. Your problem, though, is that even when you have good points, you overstate them to such an extent that they lose all their strength. A mid-career E6 without a special MOS, between base pay, housing allowance, etc. is going to make about $40K. Not really a national disgrace.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 15, 2005 1:39 PM


$40000/yr with a spouse who can't have a career because you have to move at least once a year isn't much. And it's a tough road to get to E6, roughly one's third tour of duty. Civilians with similar responsibilities and educational backgrounds to military officers are compensated at a much higher rate.

It is effectively impossible to determine the effect of unionization on the quality of education, given the massive changes in other variables that affect the model. The culture of permissiveness and 'defining deviancy down' has certainly occured and certainly has negative impacts. $50,000 in Boston or NYC for that matter is chump change. The number of resumes from HS math teachers that cross my desk on a weekly basis, even from good systems, is staggering. (Why would you leave Syosset HS to work in the City, is an interview question I've asked.)As a factual matter, there are thousands of school districts around the country that go begging for teachers every year precisely because conditions are so dreadful that anyone that can leave, does and all that are left are the dregs and misfits.

It's pretty funny how guys who live out in Grovers' Corners keep telling those of us who live in and near large urban areas that there is no problem living in and near large urban areas, and that all that concern we have about crime and the rest is just our own racism. Does anybody live within a 100 miles of you who is darker than Arnold Schwarzenegger?


In some areas yes. But in areas that are more ministerial that are not policy related, no. There is no Democratic or Republican way to pave a street, pick up garbage or teach math.

Posted by: bart at May 15, 2005 2:57 PM

Bart: I don't really want to get dragged too far into this, but...

1. I just went and picked up my son from a friend's birthday party. The friend is African-American. I've worked, day in and day out with immigrants, blacks, Hispanics and Cape Verde Islanders. My guess is that, on a daily basis, I deal face-to-face with more minorities than you talk to in a year.

2. I've lived on the south side of Chicago, downtonwn Boston and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. You have no expertise for me to defer to.

3. I'm not calling "those of us who live in and near large urban areas" racist, I'm calling you racist. I'm not basing this on your fondness for teachers' unions, but on your racism.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 15, 2005 4:46 PM

My union repeatedly passed out flyers during the last election printed in egregious colors, telling me whom to vote for: John Forbes Kerry.

I didn't vote the way they wanted me too, but I'm still forced to pay dues which help wire the fence for Democratic causes.

Posted by: Brent Anderson at May 15, 2005 4:46 PM


Exactly. It makes no difference who does it. Turnover prevents the permanent bureaucracy though.

Posted by: oj at May 15, 2005 6:00 PM


Ever have the experience of working with some jerk in a closed shop who nullified a perfectly reasonable and productive change in a work rule?

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford, Ct. at May 16, 2005 4:58 PM


Most people I work with are not White. In fact, most are Asians, but most of our auxilliary people are Hispanic. There are a few West Indians, but because we expect people to work for a living and to have some semblance of mathematical and writing ability, we don't have any American blacks. If that makes me racist, then so be it. But it's a damn funny definition of the term when the problem is the failure of American blacks to meet standards.

Posted by: bart at May 16, 2005 10:29 PM

Not to pile on Bart, but he's begging a question here. Why *should* teachers be in the public sector? There's no reason at all. Private schools actually do a better job of educating kids, on the whole. That's why poor parents are so on board with vouchers. They want their kids to have the best education possible, and they know that's unlikely to happen in the average public school.

BTW, my sister and my favorite aunt are both teachers, my aunt now retired from a 30-year career in a public high school. I got these ideas from them.

Posted by: Mary in LA at May 16, 2005 10:34 PM


In my experience teaching college math courses, kids from the better public schools were generally better prepared than the private school kids but the kids from bad public schools were far worse prepared.

The idea behind education being a public sector matter was twofold. First, we wanted to integrate large numbers of kids from diverse and often non-English speaking backgrounds directly into America. Parochial education fails to do this. I have relatives in their 20s born in the US who went to Jewish schools who retain significant Hebrew accents. This is not a good thing. The schools were the primary means by which we all became 'Americans.'

Second, the economy and the polity need to know that children are developing the necessary skills to become productive citizens. Certainly, many public schools are failing at this endeavor but there is plenty of nonsense masquerading as education in the private sector too.

Everybody is for vouchers when the kids go to a school run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, but how do you create a voucher system that gives money to the Little Sisters of the Poor and not to Louis Farrakhan or Matthew Hale, without violating the First Amendment?

Posted by: bart at May 17, 2005 7:54 AM