By Matthew Allen
To the Editor:
NORWALK, Conn. — Let me begin by saying that I have nothing but respect for our civil servants and the often thankless functions they perform on our behalf every day. I am also the son of a former Norwalk police officer so I do realize the sacrifices these workers make in doing what they do. Also, I have not made reference to either candidate for mayor because the points I am making here are specific to the issue and not outright supportive of either candidate.
It’s election season and time for the public-sector unions to make their endorsements. Press conferences, letters to the editor, comments by union leaders, rank and file members and retirees, have attacked the current administration for not exhibiting sufficient “respect” or “good faith” and for breaking promises. Perhaps it is time we consider the motivations behind these endorsements and comments because public-sector unions have an incredible amount of influence on elections. As a result, voters need to be concerned about why they choose to endorse one candidate or party over another.
This is not an anti-union diatribe and I am not seeking to debate the merits of union organizing or the benefits and protections that unions have helped bring to all workers. But not all unions are created equally. Although public- and private-sector unions share many similar traits, public-sector unions have an edge that their private-sector brethren could only hope to possess. Public-employee unions work to help elect the management team that will ostensibly sit across from them at the negotiating table.
As Victor Gotbaum, the leader of District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) said in 1975, “We have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss.” Through endorsements, political contributions and get out the vote efforts, public-sector unions can help turn the tide of an election. This is most noticeable when it comes to low-turnout elections at the local level; elections like the one the voters of Norwalk are facing this November.
The leverage carried by public-sector unions is significant. It forces managers at the state and local level to interact with their unions differently than managements in the corporate world. Despite the hue and cry by some public-sector workers, contract negotiations in the public sector are much less adversarial in nature than they are in the private sector. The unions may not feel that way; to them every negotiation may seem like a battle to the death. But it is nothing compared to what goes on in the private sector.
There is only so far a private company can be asked to go in order to meet union demands before it puts itself into an uncompetitive position in the marketplace. And being uncompetitive puts the company and all of its employees at risk. Management in a private company is also rewarded for improving profitability so they have much more of a personal interest. Not so in the public sector. The mayor doesn’t get a bonus if he keeps costs in check or taxes low. Maybe, just maybe, he gets to hold onto his job if everything else goes well. But then again, if he does too much to keep costs in check and taxes low, there is the very real chance he will come face to face with organized labor. Then the issue isn’t collective bargaining, but collective voting, collective political organizing. Politicians only need to get through the next election. What happens after they leave is someone else’s problem. That someone is the taxpayer.
I fully realize there is a need to differentiate between candidates. However, endorsements by our public-employee unions and the comments they make against the opposing candidate need to be looked upon with some degree of skepticism by voters. Recall, it wasn’t all that long ago when they sang a different tune. When unions publicly endorse a candidate or party, or when the calls for “fairness,” “respect” and “good faith” begin to be made, voters need to pay heed. Taxpayers need to pay heed. Perhaps respect and good faith are free, like a smile; then again, maybe they aren’t.
As taxpayers and voters we need to be a tad bit concerned when we are told by a union that a particular candidate would be better for all of us. In the end, no matter which candidate holds the job, the union’s leverage exists. It’s real and it will be there when the next election rolls around to help or to punish. There are consequences to not showing enough “respect, fairness and good faith.” As long as public-employee unions carry the influence they do in elections, no mayor is going to risk playing serious hardball come negotiation time. The difference will likely be at the margin, although it could wind up being a pretty wide margin. The question is: which margin would you prefer? If you think your taxes are too high now, then you have to ask yourself which direction taxes are likely to head under the union’s preferred candidate.
In the end, I want our city workers to be treated fairly and with respect, and our retirees need to be protected. I can’t say enough how much respect I have for the men and women who risk their lives on our behalf, educate our children, or do all the many things that make our city government operate. But I also want taxpayers to be treated fairly and with respect. Maybe the next time we hear one union or another endorse a candidate, of either party, we need to ask ourselves if that endorsement has our city’s best interests in mind. Because helping to elect your own boss is a weighty thing.