Never was there so perfect an emblem of public employees’ public-be-damned attitude than the outrage of New York’s Transport Workers Union over the February arrest of veteran bus driver Francisco DeJesus for running down a 15-year-old girl legally crossing the street in a crosswalk. The seriously injured girl, who had the “walk” sign in her favor, was on her way to school. Bus drivers, the union whined, are being treated like “criminals.” Henceforth, the union demanded, cops must exempt its members from arrest for failure to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. After all, why should they be treated like other motorists under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero program to reduce pedestrian traffic fatalities and injuries? How can anyone expect them to be “perfect”?
You would think that running down a pedestrian legally crossing the street with a ten- to 20-ton vehicle is prima facie evidence not of “imperfection” but of negligence and incompetence. It’s not perfection for someone who drives such a vehicle professionally to leave pedestrians uninjured. It is a basic requirement of the job, the equivalent of the physician’s oath: “First, do no harm.” The public does not hire its bus drivers to leave a certain proportion of citizens unmangled but rather to leave everybody in one piece. If this bus driver can’t manage not to ruin the life of an innocent teenager, he should lose his job.
During the Great Depression, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia famously walked into a city welfare office to make an unannounced inspection and found one employee sprawled back in his chair, his feet on his desk, his hat on his head, and a sandwich in his hand. The mayor made an inquiry, and the welfare worker growled through his well-stuffed mouth that he was eating his lunch. LaGuardia strode over to him, knocked his hat off his startled head, and barked, “Stand up and take your hat off when you talk to a citizen!” To the reporter following him, he remarked, “There’s another son of a bitch who has no job.”
That always struck me as the perfect model of public-employee management. The city worker is the servant of the public, hired and paid by the public to do the job it appoints him to do. Citizens don’t work for government, but vice versa—and in an age when public employees have better retirement packages than many of the taxpayers whose money funds them, that should be truer than ever. But in a world in which public employees have not only civil-service protection but also union protection—which even Franklin D. Roosevelt dismissed as a ridiculous idea—the opposite is ever more usually the case.
Noticing that crosstown traffic constantly gets slowed by buses stuck in Fifth Avenue crosswalks because they have tried to beat the light when the intersection was already backed up, I once suggested to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani that he could have the police ticket the drivers of those buses. Just a few tickets would do the job, I thought, and the action would serve a larger purpose than speeding up crosstown traffic, for it would dramatically demonstrate that public employees are not above the law, but that they must observe it as scrupulously as anyone else—more scrupulously, in fact, so as to set an example. An unticketed MTA bus stuck in an intersection through driver arrogance is an especially egregious example (because a city official is at fault) of the kind of neglected disorder that Broken Windows policing aims to curb, so as to encourage citizens to obey the law in matters great and small. But even Giuliani, for all his immense courage, never set one public union against another. So kudos to de Blasio for showing real guts. Perhaps he might even have the police ticket garbage trucks as they race down cars-only West End Avenue, radios blaring, on their way to the West Side garbage terminal.
By such small steps, we might approach the larger question of why private-sector retirees must sell the homes they’ve lived in all their lives because they can no longer afford the property taxes that go to fund public-sector retirees’ pensions and health-care benefits. And voters might start to hold accountable politicians who sign IOUs that will come due long after the pols in question have left office for their own gilt-edged retirements.