The weekend before last, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry faced one of those agonizing dilemmas that White House aspirants confront daily. Should he keep his promise to Boston Mayor Tom Menino, a longtime political ally from his home state, and deliver an address to the United States Conference of Mayors meeting in Boston, at the price of crossing a picket line established by the Boston police union and firefighters? Or should he cancel the address so as not to offend his union allies?
Not surprisingly, Senator Kerry, already celebrated for his flip-flops on policy issues, cancelled. As his spokesman Michael Meehan explained, "Crossing a picket line is something John Kerry is not prepared to do."
For three-quarters of a century, the national Democratic Party has depended heavily on union support, both for political contributions and (even more valuable) in-kind assistance in the form of "get out the vote" drives. The union alliance buttressed the party's chosen image as a friend of working people as opposed to the "vested interests."
But times have changed. Public employee unions overwhelmingly dominate the labor movement in America today. These are not unions battling privately owned corporations for higher wages and improved working conditions at the potential expense of corporate profits, but organizations determined to squeeze more money out of the taxpayers' own pockets. Unlike unions of private employees, they have a double clout: not only can they resort to picket lines and even strikes to enforce their will, they can use their votes to help defeat incumbent officials who refuse to bow to their demands.
As Yale law professors Ralph Winter and Harry Wellington pointed out in 1976, there is a fundamental difference between the effects of collective bargaining in the private and public sectors. In the private sector, the level of union demands is constrained by the operation of the free market: a settlement that imposes excessive costs (as determined by the market itself) on a given firm or industry will hurt workers themselves, by inducing consumers to reduce their demand for the firm's products in favor of alternative (more effective or less costly) goods. But since there is only one government for a given political entity, voters who find a public authority's collective bargaining settlement to be excessively generous with their tax monies have less opportunity to fight back. Moving to a different city or state is not usually an option. And as for voting out the city administration in the subsequent election, that isn't likely to happen, since individual citizens lack the strong interest, or organization to defend their interests, that unions can muster.
With the possible exception of Michigan, there is no state where public employee unions have wielded their political clout to greater effect than Massachusetts. It is the only state where utility digs on public streets must be manned by police details (paid for a four-hour minimum at their regular rate of compensation even for jobs that take much less time) rather than civilian flagmen (whose hourly rates in other states are about half as much). As a result, it is not uncommon for ordinary police officers to earn six-figure incomes, far outstripping the wages of the average local taxpayer. Despite a large statewide and national drop in structural fires (owing to improved construction and inspection systems), municipalities are typically unable to reduce the size of their fire department staffs on account of pressure from the firefighters' unions. And while teacher compensation has surged thanks to the state's 1993 Education Reform Act, the teachers' union has mounted a powerful campaign against any expansion in the number of charter schools, despite their popularity with students and parents, recently inducing the Democratic-controlled Legislature to impose a year-long moratorium on the start even of schools whose charters had already been authorized.
In the Boston case, with the Democratic National Convention less than a month away, police and firefighters have raised their tactics to what Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson (attending the mayors' conference) called an unprecedented level of extortion. At a time when both Boston and Massachusetts face continuing severe fiscal problems, Boston police have demanded a 16% pay hike over four yearswell above the recent rate of inflationwhile Mayor Menino has insisted the city cannot afford more than 11.9%, still a generous increase by most standards.
If John Kerry is unable to withstand such extortionate demands on the public purse as a presidential candidate, one may doubt that he will display more fiscal fortitude should he win the White House. He is certainly in no position to continue bashing the Bush administration for recent federal budget deficits.
Perhaps the final word on Senator Kerry's latest flip-flop belongs to his friend Tom Menino, who said in an interview, "As a candidate, it's about making decisions. He has to make that decision [about crossing the picket line]. I'm not going to make that decision for him. There's [sic] 250 mayors who walked through the lines. Mayors make those decisions every day of the year." Kerry did, in the end, make his decisionsort of. It's just that the decision he made contradicted his earlier commitment to Menino. One can only hope that a President Kerry would display a greater capacity to resist intimidation in the international arena than candidate Kerry has shown in the domestic one.