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Books and Culture

Steven Greenhut
The Battle for Chicago and Beyond
Facing down government unions is essential to America’s future.
14 September 2012

Shadowbosses: Government Unions Control America and Rob Taxpayers Blind, by Mallory Factor with Elizabeth Factor (Center Street, 336 pp., $24.99)

As I read Mallory Factor’s Shadowbosses, Chicago Teachers Union members walked out on strike, yelling into bullhorns and denouncing Rahm Emanuel, the Democratic mayor who has insisted on reforms to improve education in the city. As the New York Times reported, “In the view of some here, the toxic relationship between Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whom Lewis has called a ‘bully’ and a ‘liar,’ has helped push the city’s teacher contract talks to the point of a crisis, forcing 350,000 students out of their classrooms in the nation’s third-largest school system not long after the new academic year began.”

But despite the Times’s contention, the loud and angry strike over educational reforms—such as teacher evaluations and a longer work day—along with some financial concessions, is not about bad blood between a union boss and a big-city mayor. It’s a reflection of a more fundamental reality: no elected official anywhere in the United States can seriously reform public schools—or any public service, from police to firefighting to trash collection—without confronting the power of public-sector unions, which have had their way for decades. They control the negotiating table: often, government employees negotiating on behalf of taxpayers are members of the union with which they’re negotiating. And the unions often elect their bosses—city council members, county supervisors, and school board members. Factor’s timely book tells an important story about how we’ve reached this point in Chicago and elsewhere.

It was easier to give public-union officials what they wanted when the American economy was soaring. An economic slowdown has made these giveaways tougher to justify, especially for cities verging on bankruptcy. The most fascinating aspect of the Chicago strike is that the main issue, front and center, is reform—precisely what unions everywhere resist. “The 29,000 striking Chicago teachers are sending the message to Mayor Rahm Emanuel (and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan) that their teacher bashing and privatization schemes for public education have become so onerous and destructive to the teachers’ mission and profession that they have no choice but to fight back,” wrote Joseph Palermo in the Huffington Post.

The Chicago teachers’ strike is also intriguing because the reformers are Democrats—as they are in San Jose, California, where arguably the most significant battle over public-sector pension reform is now being waged in the courts. Mayor Chuck Reed led a pension-reform initiative in June that won 70 percent of the vote in an overwhelmingly Democratic city by arguing that without such reform, public services will be undermined. Reed’s initiative would limit pensions for current employees, the key provision now under legal review.

Many in the media have portrayed Wisconsin’s long fight over collective-bargaining reform—including two recall elections, Democratic legislators’ flight from the state to avoid voting on a reform package, and a level of public anger rarely seen in a state that prides itself on friendliness—as a Republican versus Democratic battle, but the debate over unions extends beyond partisan lines. Factor quotes a former U.S. Labor Department official: “People think that the labor movement is a subsidiary of the Democrat Party. They are wrong. Today, the Democrat Party is a subsidiary of the labor movement.” I see this in California, where I often note that it’s an understatement to say that public-sector unions control the state legislature. They are the legislature; most of the Democratic leadership comes straight from a public employee union. But serious Democratic officials are now joining Republican leaders in an effort to reform public service. The union pushback has been furious. Anyone who supports genuine change should expect a long, tough political battle, and Factor’s book is useful for precisely this reason.

His chapter “The Union Fist” is particularly important, as he explains the degree to which violence, or the threat of it, is part and parcel of union tactics. He notes how a 1973 Supreme Court decision gave unions special protection from prosecution for such violence. Under that decision, “if union officials or members commit violence, they can’t be prosecuted under federal extortion laws as long as they were doing the violence in pursuit of a ‘legitimate’ union aim, like striking for higher wages.” Factor also cites a 1975 case in Pomona, California, where striking police officers vandalized police cars and harassed volunteers providing police services.

One needn’t go back four decades to find more examples of sleazy, union-linked behavior. In a Costa Mesa case I wrote about recently, an investigator associated with a law firm that represents 120 police unions across California called police to report a man stumbling drunkenly from a tavern. The report was apparently false, as the man hadn’t been drinking, and video showed he wasn’t stumbling. Why did the investigator make the call? The “drunk” happened to be councilmember Jim Righeimer, who had been leading pension-reform and outsourcing efforts in Costa Mesa.

Soon after that incident, elected officials from other cities held a press conference revealing how police-union members have used their authority to intimidate them into stopping their reform efforts. The law firm representing all those police unions had even published a “playbook” on its website bragging about the brass-knuckle tactics it employs against city managers and council members. Factor details these brazen efforts to scare off reformers, as well as unions’ behind-the-scenes efforts to secure special privileges. His book opens with a tale of union leaders—the shadowbosses, as he calls them—in a closed-door meeting with President Obama early in his administration, as they sought to guide the new president’s policy direction.

Factor also chronicles unions’ plans to extend their membership to “the over 21 million health-care workers who will be needed to implement Obamacare.” He shows the dismal effects of excessive unionization—killing economic prosperity, expanding governmental bureaucracy, curtailing individual freedom, and bankrupting states and municipalities. And he highlights the destruction of public services and especially public schools, as unions seek to expand the benefits and privileges of their members while blocking needed reforms. Students are the biggest losers. Factor quotes the liberal Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter: “It is very, very important to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. Teachers are great, a national treasure. Teachers unions are, generally speaking, a menace and an impediment to reform.”

If the United States is to succeed in fixing its school system and improving public services, it will take a coalition of liberals and conservatives—ranging from Rahm Emanuel to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker—willing to challenge the power of public-sector unions. Mallory Factor has done an exemplary job showing the battle lines.

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