I enjoyed Michael McMenamin's "Labor Lost" (November), but I would be interested in further information on the tactics unions are using to gain members where they cannot win elections.
For example, in Milwaukee the group "Justice for Janitors" has given up trying to organize mostly part-time and low-wage janitorial employees and is instead trying to force building owners and managers to hire only union firms to do their cleaning. The activists chant and shout and rattle soda cans filled with stones at board meetings, award ceremonies, and other public events where targeted high-profile building owners or CEOs who use nonunion cleaners are appearing. They don't attempt to organize the workers, they just drive clients away from the nonunion companies through intimidation.
Apparently, if you're not working for a unionized firm, you don't deserve a job. What tactics are they resorting to in other cities?
Mary Jo Baas
It is true that union membership is proportionally much greater in the public sector. But unions have secured the dues of civil servants through a Faustian bargain whereby they forgo their most potent weapon, the right to strike. A government bus line, for example, does not have to worry, like its private counterpart, about a possible walkout.
Government unions may pretend to be militant, but in fact they support the politicians who impose the legal prohibitions against strikes by public employees. In return, the politicians acquiesce to union demands for a union shop and the dues checkoff. It's a cozy arrangement unless you happen to be the employee.
I enjoyed "Labor Lost," though I would hasten to add that Mr. McMenamin's point of disagreement with my own analysis is based on a truncated summary of my argument in Labor Pains.
I argued there that three sets of considerations—the size of the stakes (the factor Mr. McMenamin discusses), the degree and nature of the unions' motivation, and the inherent magnetism of the opportunities for attack—drove the action. Indeed, in my view, it is the last of these points that is determinative in health care—the availability of dramatic and potent themes.
Jarol B. Manheim
Michael McMenamin replies: In response to Ms. Baas, the Service Employees International Union is leading the way with comprehensive corporate campaigns against certain employers and, in some cases, certain industries. Some of the SEIU's tactics are: storming the offices of the employer and sticking bumper stickers and flyers everywhere, demonstrating at the homes of company board members, blocking access to major roads, and handing out leaflets designed to scare customers away from the employer.
The SEIU's phone book-sized Contract Campaign Manual admits that the purpose of these tactics is to "jeopardize relationships between the employer and lenders, investors, stockholders, customers, clients, patients, tenants, politicians, or others on whom the employer depends for funds" and "embarrass [company management] in front of their superiors, associates, families, neighbors, or friends in the community." And the SEIU is good at what it does.
Contrary to Mr. Kahn, most public employees are not prohibited by law from striking. In Ohio, for example, teachers are free to strike, but police and firefight-ers are not. And as the federal air traffic controllers learned the hard way in 1980, they are not permitted to strike either. But those are exceptions. All unions contractually agree not to strike during the term of a labor agreement, and dues checkoffs can be made only pursuant to the terms of a collective bargaining agreement. Once an agreement expires, continuing a dues checkoff would be illegal.
Finally, Professor Manheim and I don't really disagree, but let me elaborate. I agree with him that high turnover in a company's work force can become, in many circumstances, a barrier to entry because, as he suggests, the workers to be organized are "something of a moving target." But I would argue this is more true of the older industrial unions that patiently worked to organize a company over an extended period. New Labor is much less patient, and, as the SEIU's Contract Campaign Manual admits, the SEIU seeks to "organize the employer," not the employee. Hence, the tactics outlined above are directed at the employer, not the employee. For New Labor, therefore, high turnover is not the barrier to organizing that it once was for Old Labor. Professor Manheim does argue that there are three sets of considerations driving the union's actions, but I believe his third consideration ("the availability of dramatic and potent themes") is a tactical point, not a strategic one. The main issue is still the money. If there's enough of it to be made, the unions will invent the dramatic and potent themes.
The Real Miracle in Texas
With the arrival of November's issue, I turned straight to "Texas' Big Test" by Jerry Jesness. The subject has been foremost in my political notebook since I first hired two Vocational Education Office girls in 1974, just 10 years after I graduated from a public Texas high school. I was dismayed to find that neither of these well-behaved high school seniors could even spell.
I appreciate Jesness' article. But he fails to point out the miracle in Houston's worst ghetto areas: Thaddeus Lott and the new charter schools. With nothing but opposition from the teachers union, the educrats, and all who support the status quo, Lott has risen above it all to create a system that now has teachers as well as students waiting in line to get in. Scores are consistently equal to or better than those of the richest districts in Houston, in all areas of study. (That might not be saying much, depending on where you place the bar, but at least they do that well.)
Jesness' article makes the case for more charter schools and for free choice and vouchers. The continued failure of the very schools he discusses—after all we've done to turn them around—is clear evidence that some schools will never turn around, no matter how hard you try, how much you test, how vigorously you pressure the establishment. I believe every child in Texas deserves a K-12 education at least equal to what San Antonio's illustrious Mayor Henry Cisneros had, and that was all private, all Catholic. Why not? It works.
Jerry Jesness replies: I agree with most everything in Robert Bruce's letter. Although I hope to have the opportunity someday to visit Thaddeus Lott's Wesley Elementary, I have no firsthand knowledge of his charter schools. Sources that I trust, however, speak well of them, so I am assuming that these schools represent one of too few bright spots in the Texas education system.
The two current trends in education reform are government-mandated standards, which are monitored with tests like the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, and market-oriented reforms such as vouchers and charter schools. Although we should not unconditionally support the latter reforms—any program can be badly implemented, and a badly implemented voucher program could damage public and private schools alike—the Texas experience has shown us a serious weakness of the former. Schools and government agencies can succumb to the temptation to spin data in order to exaggerate their successes and mask their failures.
I found the article "Attorney Privilege" by James Joseph (November) to be, as a lawyer might put it, "on point." In starting my own new business, I have been bewildered by the array of accounting, legal, banking, and financial services firms I must deal with—separately. The only thing that has kept me sane is the fact that I am fortunate to have family business connections with firms in all these fields (including many of the firms Mr. Joseph mentions) and so have been able to put together a coherent team of advisers. I cannot imagine what the typical first-time entrepreneur without access to such services must go through in order to do the same.
Michael David Wolk
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