Fate of the Unions

With a string of recent organized-labor outrages, what was once a fairy-tale notion in Massachusetts—hard-core union-busting—may become a reality in today’s dire fiscal times. All we need is the right demagogue.

Governor Patrick’s compulsive hope-mongering has always struck me as a bunch of sweet-smelling nonsense, but earlier this year, I had a glimmer of what he was getting at. It happened during the debate over whether to allow municipal workers in Massachusetts cities and towns to join the state’s Group Insurance Commission, or GIC. According to an independent analysis, bringing these workers into the state pool—which offers more flexibility and lower premiums and administrative costs—would save cash-strapped cities and towns an estimated $100 million in healthcare costs in 2009, and $2.5 billion annually by 2018. But there was a potential roadblock: The municipal unions weren’t into it, because every aspect of the plan wouldn’t be subject to collective bargaining. That the unions were blockading some critical cost-cutting was unsurprising—in Massachusetts, that’s what unions are for—but what was different this time was that it looked as if, for once, they might not get their way. At least that’s how it seemed when House Speaker Sal DiMasi suggested we might leave it to the towns, and not labor leaders, to decide.

The audacity of hope! Together we can! And so forth! In the end, of course, lawmakers gave away the store to the unions, telling towns they could join the GIC only if 70 percent of their union members voted for it. Though DiMasi warned if the unions didn’t cooperate, he’d “take them out of the equation,” it sounded a shade too blustery to be true. Naturally, the response has been whopping: Five of the state’s 351 communities signed up by the November 5 deadline.

Still, just entertaining the idea that anyone would do anything in this state without first kissing the hems of the unions’ garments had me walking on air. I felt like a moonbat. Not the Deval-worshipping species of moonbat, but a kind of genetic mutant that only modern-day Massachusetts could produce: one that dreams of a day when the populace will finally rise up and overthrow the tyranny of…organized labor. (Hardly the sort of thing you think of when you hear the phrase “movement of the people.”) A string of recent villainies perpetrated by unions, along with Deval Patrick’s tentative sorta-suggestion that he may “look at” ending police details (greeted by gales of laughter), has only intensified the feeling.

Certainly, something must be done here. Formed to prevent the powerful from preying upon the powerless, our public employee unions have themselves become the powerful—their incessant wails for “fairness” are minor masterpieces of Orwellian doublespeak—and it’s the rest of us who are powerless against the flabbergastingly senseless status quo they spend their days defending. With municipalities more reliant on rising property taxes than they’ve been in 25 years, and unions squashing anything that would help cut costs or increase efficiency, I started to wonder whether we’re approaching a time when voter anger will outweigh union clout, and politicians will be able to take a stand without being carted off in pails afterward.

So I called Sam Tyler, the Boston Municipal Research Bureau’s president, to run it past him. “You think that day has come?” Tyler said. And then he laughed. And it wasn’t a sarcastic laugh, or a laugh for effect. He was actually laughing. And while he kept laughing, I began to feel like a college freshman who’s asked a hard-bitten soldier how many drum circles he thinks it would take to stop all wars.

Yet mocking laughter, however rooted in reason, truth, and history, only serves to strengthen the moonbat’s resolve. As municipalities resort to a steady parade of Proposition 2½ overrides just to keep the lights on, and the state performs its grotesque courtship dance for casino developers, the situation looks more and more like a tipping point or, better yet, a tinderbox. It’s a juncture ripe for revolution. All that’s needed now is a few real revolutionaries.


The phrase “union abuses” can conjure a sordid array of images, but for many, police details are first on the list. As a 2004 Beacon Hill Institute study pointed out, Massachusetts is the only state in the country that requires trained law-enforcement officers to sleep or read the Herald near construction sites in exchange for mammoth amounts of money—money that is later factored into their pensions. (The unions have always justified the practice on the grounds of public safety, which might wash if, as noted by the same study, our state didn’t still have some of the worst car accident rates in the nation.) In the past months, we’ve seen a few classics of the form, such as the Gloucester cop who was hired to work eight hours at a private construction site, showed up late, worked two hours, left to work another detail, and then double-billed for the first.

But the police have by no means cornered the outrageous-abuses market. What about the schoolteachers in Quincy who went on strike because the mayor asked them to contribute 20 percent to their healthcare premiums (a not-unreasonable request, given that many private-sector employees pay around 25 percent)? Or the firefighters in Newton attacking the mayor at every turn because he wants them to prove they’re actually sick when they take their 24-hour sick days (often in August), racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime? Or the firefighters in Boston who adamantly opposed random drug testing and annual physicals, only to have that blow up in their faces when it was reported that one of the jakes killed battling the West Roxbury restaurant fire was drunk at the time and the other had cocaine in his system? Or the T, which keeps jacking up fares merely to maintain the current levels of poor service, while offering its employees retirement with full health benefits after 23 years, regardless of age—a deal the state’s Transportation Finance Commission called “among the most generous in the country”?

“They are just greedy beyond comprehension,” says David Tuerck, Suffolk University economist and head of the Beacon Hill Institute. “And I don’t think it can be explained anymore by political [power]. It’s just a failure on the part of politicians to think through their own self-interest.”

Which is to say, there may now be more political hay to be made by solving the state’s financial ills than by blowing kisses to the unions. But our pols have long feared making that stand, even if doing so properly could result in lower taxes and better services for their constituents. It’s not enough to blame them for their cravenness; you also have to look to an electorate so bewitched by unions’ sentimental appeal that it has never provided a bludgeon for the right politician to take some swings. There’s no question voters should be more than fed up with this state of affairs, paying ever higher property taxes to fund the kind of lavish benefits they’re not getting anymore in the private sector. In Boston, for instance, it takes five average taxpayers to cover the city’s 90 (!) percent share of one employee’s family health plan—the cost of which has nearly doubled since 2001. Statewide, property taxes have gone up 32 percent since 2001, even as social service programs have been cut, meaning that taxpayers are shelling out more to pay for benefits they’re not getting, in exchange for fewer services. There’s “fairness” for you.

“There is a collision course,” says
Michael Widmer, head of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, “between the long-standing power of the public employee unions on one hand, and the inability of state and local governments to continue to support the benefit structures, the health and pension plans, on the other. That reality is, I think, forcing this issue to the surface.”

Right now, though, the urgency is surfacing only in the overzealous pursuit of new revenue sources, like local option taxes (which were torpedoed by DiMasi) and casinos. The governor is estimating that his proposed gambling palaces will result in an annual $400 million windfall, $200 million of which would go to tax credits. That figure has been widely debunked by skeptics, but let’s give our governor the benefit of the doubt. Here’s the thing, though: According to one study, we’re squandering $100 million a year on police details alone. If Patrick had the guts to go after that perk, and unions were also compelled to join the GIC—saving another $100 million out of the gate—we would have as much money for municipalities as we would under the absolute best possible scenario with casinos, only without that dull shine of whorishness, the appalling regressiveness, and the outright shame of following Connecticut’s lead in anything. Win-win-win.


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What would it take to bring our politicians around? I asked one local political consultant (who asked to remain anonymous—he wants to keep working), and he tentatively pointed to the firefighter tragedy/scandal as an example of how public outrage against unions could be sustained. “It takes something horrible—one guy with coke and one guy with booze—and it’s finally something the public can get their heads around,” he said. “But in the end, eight months down the road, will the public still remember, or care? Will the politicians still have the courage to come forward?”

A fair point. Politicians will only come forward if the public outrage is sustained, and the public will only shed their union-outrage fatigue if they can be reasonably confident that this time their ire will yield results. Even though the unions have been their own worst enemy recently, with the cluster of exquisite chicaneries aforementioned, that alone won’t do the job. What’s needed is careful deployment of the tool they have been using so deftly against us for years: old-fashioned demagoguery.

One need look no further than the unions themselves, those masters of the dark art, for tips on how this is done. For years, anytime someone has ventured any criticism, it’s been met with a furious overreaction designed to stop the discussion dead. The police unions have always used the public safety card, and the teachers the “What about the children?!” card. The Boston school bus drivers once accused the city of being racist because it wanted to equip their vehicles with GPS systems, buses being symbols of busing, and by extension, integration. And I’m pretty sure you’re still not allowed, in this post-9/11 era, to criticize firefighters for anything.

So whoever is going to take this on should expect immediate, disproportionate retaliation, and prepare to respond in kind. As in any political campaign, it would be wise to keep an ad in the drawer, and when the cops start scare-mongering about how traffic details deter pederasty, and the teachers start spinning horror scenarios involving illiterate adult-children washing rats for a living, launch it. I’m just brainstorming, but here’s one idea: The ad opens with an image of a nice old couple losing their home because they can’t keep up with their property taxes. As they’re shuffling away, clutching a blanket and some photos of the grandkids, T workers wearing top hats and monocles rifle through their house, chortling at how gauche the wallpaper is. The couple wander aimlessly before finding themselves in a rough urban neighborhood, where they’re set upon by teenage hoodlums who aren’t in school because their teachers are on strike over the city’s refusal to meet their demands for daily hot stone massages. The hoods take everything the couple have, and then run off past an enormously fat cop sleeping on a nest of hundred-dollar bills in a cruiser by a construction site. The last shot is of the old couple trembling in an alley somewhere, perhaps with some vicious curs closing in. Onto the screen flash calculations of what the more egregious recent union abuses cost taxpayers, and finally the words “UNION SOLIDARITY? WITH WHOM?”

Or some such. The unions, who’ve long nurtured a victim complex to great political avail, will of course cry foul, howling about how without them we’d all be working 18 hours a day in some godforsaken cannery. But if the ad is played right, the sentimental underdog appeal that is a key part of their power will be eroded, and, with voter backing, real gains might be made.

Admittedly, it’s a long shot, but I still say there’s hope. To pull one from Nabokov (who, like union foes, was frequently accused by weasels of harming children), it may be but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness, but, hell, it’s something. Besides, in times of crisis, we moonbats must dream.