When you step back and try to get a sense of the larger picture in the battle between the states and their public employee unions, two elements emerge. One seems small but could prove decisive, and the other is big and, if I’m seeing it right, carries significant implications.
The seemingly small thing is that the battles in the states, while summoning emotions from all sides, are not at their heart emotional. Yes, a lot of people are waving placards, but it’s also true that suddenly everyone’s talking about numbers; the numbers are being reported in the press and dissected on talk radio. This state has a $5 billion deficit; that state has projected deficits in the tens of millions. One estimate of New Jersey’s bill for health and pension benefits for state workers over the next 30 years is an astounding $100 billion—money the state literally does not have and cannot get. The very force of the math has the heartening effect of squeezing ideology right out of the story. It doesn’t matter if you’re a liberal or a conservative, it’s all about the numbers, and numbers are sobering things.
The rise of arithmetic as a player in the drama is politically promising because when people argue over data and hard facts, and not over ideological loyalties and impulses, progress is more possible. Governors can take their stand, their opponents can take theirs, and if they happen to argue the budget problem doesn’t really exist, they’ll have to prove it. With numbers.
The big thing that is new has to do with the atmospherics of the drama.
Asst. Editorial Features Editor David Feith on teachers union priorities
Let’s look for a second at one of the most famous battles, in New Jersey. A year ago Chris Christie was sworn in as the new governor. He immediately faced a $10.7 billion deficit and catastrophic debt projections. State and local taxes were already high, so that if he raised them he’d send people racing out of the state. So Mr. Christie came up with a plan. He asked the state’s powerful teachers union for two things: a one-year pay freeze—not a cut—and a modest 1.5% contribution to their benefit packages.
The teachers union went to war. They said, “Christie is trying to kill the unions,” so they tried to kill him politically. They spent millions on ads trying to take him down.
And it backfired. They didn’t kill him, they made him. Chris Christie is a national figure now because the teachers union decided, in an epic political drama in which arithmetic is the predominant fact, to ignore the math. They also decided to play the wrong role in the drama. They decided to play the role of Johnny Friendly, on whom more in a moment.
If the union leaders had been smart—if they’d had a heart!—they would have held a private meeting and said, “Look, the party’s over. We’ve done great the past 20 years, but now taxpayers are starting to resent us, and they have reason. They’re losing their benefits and footing the bill for our gold-plated plans, they don’t have job security and we do, taxes are high. We have to back off.”
They didn’t do this. It was a big mistake. And the teachers union made it just as two terrible but unrelated things were happening to their reputation. In what might be called an expression of the new spirit of transparency that is sweeping the globe, two documentaries came out in 2010, “The Lottery” and “Waiting for Superman.” Both were made by and featured people who are largely liberal in their sympathies, and both said the same brave thing: The single biggest impediment to better schools in our country is the teachers unions, which look to their own interests and not those of the kids.
In both films, as in real life, the problem is the unions themselves, not individual teachers. They present teachers who are heroic, who are creative and idealistic. But they too, in the films, are victims of union rules.
That’s the unions’ problem in terms of atmospherics. They are starting to destroy their own reputation. They are robbing themselves of their mystique. They still exist, and they’re big and rich—a force—but they are abandoning the very positive place they’ve held in the American imagination. Polls are all over the place on union support, but I’m speaking of the kind of thing that is hard to quantify and that has to do with words like “luster” and “tradition.”
Unions have been respected in America forever, and public employee unions have reaped that respect. There are two great reasons for this. One is that unions always stood for the little guy. The other is that Americans like balance. We have management over here and the union over here, they’ll talk and find balance, it’ll turn out fine.
But with the public employee unions, the balance has been off for decades. And when they lost their balance they fell off their pedestal.
When union leaders negotiate with a politician, they’re negotiating with someone they can hire and fire. Public unions have numbers and money, and politicians need both. And politicians fear strikes because the public hates them. When governors negotiate with unions, it’s not collective bargaining, it’s more like collusion. Someone said last week the taxpayers aren’t at the table. The taxpayers aren’t even in the room.
As for unions looking out for the little guy, that’s not how it’s looking right now. Right now the little guy is the public school pupil whose daily rounds take him from a neglectful family to an indifferent teacher who can’t be removed. The little guy is the beleaguered administrator whose attempts at improvement are thwarted by unions. The little guy is the private-sector worker who doesn’t have a good health-care plan, who barely has a pension, who lacks job security, and who is paying everyone else’s bills.
This is a major perceptual change. In my lifetime, people have felt so supportive of unions. That great scene in the 1979 film “Norma Rae,” in which the North Carolina cotton mill worker played by Sally Field holds up the sign that says UNION—people were moved by that scene because they believed in its underlying justice. When I was a child, kids bragged if their father had a union job because it meant he was part of something, someone was looking out for him, he was a citizen.
There were hiccups—the labor racketeering scandals of the 1950s, Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters. But they served as a corrective to romanticism. Men in groups will be men in groups, whether they run a government or a union. Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan captured this in their 1954 masterpiece, “On the Waterfront,” in which Terry Malloy, played by Marlon Brando, stands up to the selfish, bullying union chief Johnny Friendly. Brando’s character testifies to the Waterfront Commission and then defiantly stands down Johnny and his goons. “I’m glad what I done today. . . . You hear me? Glad what I done.”
We’re at quite a moment when public employee unions remind you of Johnny Friendly. They’re so powerful, such a base of the Democratic Party, and they must think nothing can hurt them. But they can hurt themselves. And they are. Are they noticing?