Enough Blame to Go Around: The Labor Pains of New York City’s Public Employee Unions, by Richard Steier (Excelsior Editions, 304 pp., $24.95)
In 1958, New York City mayor Robert F. Wagner issued an executive order mandating collective bargaining for municipal employees. The “little Wagner Act”—so named because Wagner’s father, a New Deal-era senator, had authored 1935’s Wagner Act requiring collective bargaining in the private sector—helped the mayor mobilize public workers in his battle against Tammany Hall. Public-sector unions quickly became a political force in New York. In addition to bargaining collectively over wages, working conditions, and benefits, they began to underwrite political campaigns, lobby mayors and city council members, and organize protests when their interests were threatened. The dominant political player in the city council today is the Working Families Party, a creation of the city’s public-sector unions.
Given their political muscle, the unions’ influence has been felt on both sides of the bargaining table. The result has been a ratcheting up of the cost of city government, as unionization added wage and benefit premiums to what workers would have otherwise earned. Layering work rules on top of civil-service protections also constrained the authority of administrative managers. Champions of government employees applaud these developments; critics point to a rising tax bill and sclerotic public services.
Solidly in the first camp is Richard Steier, an editor and columnist for the Chief-Leader, a newspaper dedicated to covering the civil service in New York. The paper’s political line is Old Left—more the Popular Front of 1938 than the radical chic of 1968. Since 1998, Steier has written a column on the trials and tribulations of Gotham’s public-employee unions, and he has now collected many of these pieces into a book: Enough Blame to Go Around: The Labor Pains of New York City’s Public Employee Unions.
The core of Steier’s case for public-employee unionization is that most government workers make modest, middle-class salaries, and thus “unions represent the best shot that ordinary people in this nation have for fair economic treatment.” In Steier’s view, humble government employees are menaced by a teeming horde of villains. These include Wall Street financiers, presidents Reagan and Bush, mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, Governor Andrew Cuomo, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, charter school operator Eva Moskowitz, the Citizens Budget Commission, the Manhattan Institute (publisher of City Journal), and the corruption and cupidity of many union leaders themselves.
The unions are hampered, Steier suggests, by their inability to get their message into the “corporate-run” media. (Steier holds a particular grudge against Murdoch’s New York Post and Mortimer Zuckerman’s Daily News). If only the unions could “get their story out on issues that involve conflict with the city and state government,” he laments, citizens would rally to the union cause. Because, as Steier sees it, unions haven’t been able to do this, “there has been relatively little significant legislation benefiting [the unions] or their members enacted into law in recent years.” He takes heart, however, in the unions’ ability to “block legislation that would harm them or their rank and file.” That requires political power.
The unions’ biggest enemy, in Steier’s telling, is their own leadership. He offers lurid tales of leaders dipping into union coffers to enrich themselves (and their relatives) and rigging contract votes. The leaders of various locals in AFSCME DC 37—according to its website, “New York City’s largest public employee union”—paid for lavish trips to exotic destinations, Super Bowl tickets, and visits to strip clubs. Charles Hughes, the head of Local 372, embezzled $2 million while maintaining a cocaine habit in the late 1990s. Nonetheless, Steier holds out hope that if the unions can become more responsive to their members, they will win higher wages, better benefits, and improved protections.
Readers looking for substantive analysis or a cogent case for public-employee unionization will be disappointed. Steier has simply taken his columns from the last 15 years—without any updating—and organized them by union. The book devotes sections to the United Federation of Teachers, the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, AFSCME DC 37, and the Transport Workers Union. While Steier’s columns are richly detailed, for readers unfamiliar with many of the principal union leaders or how they operate, the stories lack context and cry out for further explanation. Many readers will have heard of teachers’ union heads Randi Weingarten and Michael Mulgrew, for instance, but few are likely to know much about Stanley Hill, Lillian Roberts, Arthur Cheliotes, and Brian McLaughlin, let alone the even more obscure union officials Steier frequently cites. Unless the reader is a city employee or a die-hard union watcher, Steier’s book is a trip deep into the weeds.
Rhetorically, Steier is a master of insinuation, innuendo, and the ad homeniem attack. But the ideological thrust of his writing is straightforward statism. The goal, as he sees it, is to transfer ever more resources from the private sector to the public sector. Whether the issue is pay, benefits, or work rules, he seems interested only in preaching to the converted. He never tries to balance the unions’ interests against others—such as those of taxpayers, small businesses, schoolchildren, or the consumers of city services. He refuses to confront the issue of exploding pension and retiree health-care costs, which threaten to displace current government services such as police, fire, and sanitation. In Steier’s world, no limit exists to how much the rich can be taxed to pay for a more opulent public sector, and he’s not interested in comparing the lots of similarly situated public- and private-sector workers. Doing so would have allowed readers to judge how government workers are faring compared with the four-fifths of workers employed in the private sector.
If Enough Blame To Go Around is the best that can be said on behalf of New York City’s public-sector unions, then their public image isn’t likely to improve any time soon. With friends like Steier, the unions don’t need enemies.