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Street Justice

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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