The GOP’s Demographic Challenge (Part 2): Public Employee Unions
In Part I of this series, I promised, as a recent GOP convert who’s probably as demographically “blue” as it gets, to take a look at how the Republicans might be able to create a more favorable demographic alignment in American politics by capitalizing on the present window of opportunity created by the economic failures of Obama and the current leadership of the Democratic Party. I used my first post to argue for an emphasis on citizenship as a basic element of freedom and equality and against amnesty and any other policy that erodes the rights, responsibilities and privileges of citizenship within our society. I pointed out that African-Americans in particular, and to a lesser extent Asians and even native-born Latinos, experience first-hand a host of negative impacts deriving from unchecked illegal immigration, including most importantly, a loss of economic opportunities.
In this diary, I will discuss public employee unions.
Recently, a Rhode Island school district voted to fire all 88 teachers of an underperforming local high school at the end of the current school year. Although the goings on at a failing school in a small Rhode Island city might seem unimportant in the larger scheme of things, the national AFL-CIO in a unanimous resolution condemned the firings, even as President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan were expressing support.
It turns out the district wanted to apply for federal “turnaround” funds, wherein the teachers would be required to spend a few extra hours a week working with students, meeting with parents, getting training, etc. The union demanded a King’s ransom for their troubles, prompting the district to instead opt for “Plan B”: fire the whole staff and let them reapply for the jobs in the fall, with a maximum of 50% being rehired. Now, we’ll see if district officials withstand the withering assault from the union movement headed their way (doubtful).
Regardless of the outcome of this particular skirmish, the war between parents of students trapped in failing schools and the teacher’s unions will continue on. Whether it’s the Democrats in Congress canceling the popular District of Columbia voucher program that allowed low-income kids to attend private schools, the teacher’s union in Los Angeles disqualifying proven successful charter operators from competing to run troubled schools, or any number of other examples, the story remains the same: Democrats stand with teacher’s unions against parents and children of color seeking improved educational opportunities. Any real attempt to reform and improve those schools is rejected by teacher’s unions who coddle their incompetent teachers, a disproportionate proportion of whom end up at the head of classrooms filled primarily by students of color, and refuse to allow changes in work rules and hours, merit pay, etc.
But the conflict with public employee unions does not by any means end with education. Just as students of color are subservient in priority to the interests of teacher’s unions, urban communities of color in general seem to also exist mainly to serve the interests of the public employee unions that are the most powerful political entities in many big cities and blue states, and yes, that includes policeman, fireman, and prison guards, as well as engineers, landscapers, and bureaucrats.
I recently attended a meeting of my local neighborhood association (I’m on the board), where the latest city budget crisis was discussed. Our city councilman was in attendance and informed us that a variety of city services were on the chopping block, including recreation and parks, libraries, assistance to people with disabilities, arts and music programs — even police and fire would not be spared. The cuts needed to balance the budget were to be deep, going way past the “fat” into what in this liberal city would be considered by most people to be “hard bone”. When I asked him about the possibility of salary cuts, however, he acknowledged that if the city workforce would agree to an across-the-board 8% pay cut, the “crisis” would be over. He also noted that the police department, which constitutes close to half of the total city budget, needs 30% more officers to cover the same beats because their contract allows them to work a 3-day “full-time” week.
Stuff like this is not just limited to Los Angeles. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently found that the average pay for federal workers on average significantly exceeds salaries for the same work in the private sector. The situation at the state and local level is probably even worse. The Los Angeles Times reports that state salaries, supposedly trimmed back by forced furloughs, have instead exploded through the abuse of overtime, with some workers taking home over $100,000 a year just in overtime. More than 13% of the total workforce at the city utility make over $100,000 a year.
And salaries are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the health and retirement benefits that really become the budget killers. In many cities and big states, government workers can retire at the age of 55 with guaranteed full health care benefits and most of their salary (which is usually jacked up with overtime in the last year in order to set the base) for the rest of their life. Given current life expectancy, that can easily be another 25 or 30 years! Municipal and state budget crises just mean that big city and blue state residents will get even less in the way of services, while paying an even higher percentage of their incomes.
You get the picture: the bottom line is who is working for whom? In one big city and blue state after the next, it seems as though it is the residents who are working to pay the inflated salaries of government workers, while ridiculous and inflexible work rules allow those same workers to avoid providing much in the way of services in return. A recent study, for example, compared the rate of taxation and quality of public services in California and Texas, and found that Californians paid much higher taxes for significantly worse public services.
What does this mean for the GOP’s demographic challenge? Although it is true that a large percentage of unionized public employees are people of color, it is also true that the vast majority of people of color are not members of public employee unions, but are instead the very people who pay their inflated salaries and benefits, while receiving greatly compromised public services in return. The higher taxes not only take more money directly, but also translate into fewer jobs and economic opportunities. Compromised public services can mean anything from failing schools to thirty-minute 911 response times to disintegrating infrastructure.
Democrats cannot change this situation in any real way for the simple reason that nearly all Democratic politicians owe their political fortunes to support from public employee unions. In many big cities and blue states, the real Democratic Primary is not the one that takes place when voters get to the polls, but instead occurs as the various potential nominees jockey with each other for the nod of the local “Fed” (i.e. Federation of labor unions). There’s a vicious cycle where campaign contributions buy politicians who vote for increased salaries and benefits, a percentage of which is taken (by force) by the union and used to make even more campaign contributions. The citizenry is nowhere in the picture.
Only Republicans can break this cycle and offer an alternative scenario where everyone in society has the opportunity to benefit from low taxes and better services, not just those who are lucky enough to score a government “job-for-life”. And lower taxes and better services not only help people directly in the short-run, but they also lay the foundation for economic growth and development in the medium- and long-term, leading to more jobs and economic opportunities — again something that clearly benefits everyone in a society, not just a lucky few. Ultimately, those teachers, policemen, firemen and other public employees who actually want to provide quality public services and excel in their chosen professions will benefit as well from work environments that value and reward excellence.
Obviously, any battles against public employee unions must be chosen wisely. They are very powerful. But these battles are occurring, communities of color are actively engaged at the grassroots level and Republicans are showing up. But if these battles become a bigger focus for Republicans and the conservative movement in general, and communities of color, who are preyed upon by these unions, taxed to death, and provided with low-quality public services in return, see Republicans coming to their aid in their fights for better schools, safer streets, etc., it will put a bright spotlight on fact that the dominance of public employee unions in the Democratic Party is actually quite harmful to not only society in general, but to communities of color most of all.