Public Unions

Unions vs. Democratic Mayors

The longstanding love affair between Democrats and organized labor is on the rocks.

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When Chicago public school teachers started the fall semester by turning down a $400 million contract offer that would have boosted pay by 16 percent over four years, my first concern wasn't for the children. It was for the Democrats

Sure, the walkout by Chicago Teachers Union members caused havoc for kids. But I've been to public school, and I can tell you they didn't miss much. 

The strike's lasting damage was to the party that since at least the early 20th century has been labor's best friend. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is not just some schmuck in the donkey party: He is President Barack Obama's former chief of staff, the congressional leader behind the Democrats' 2006 House takeover, a Clinton administration arm twister so feared that he is still known by his '90s nickname, Rahmbo. 

But the strike made Chicago's tough-guy mayor look like Chuck "Bayonne Bleeder" Wepner. Striking teachers dubbed him "Empermanuel," accused him of having "no respect for us as people," and even claimed (falsely, it turned out) that Emanuel was a fan of the Canadian alt-rock quartet Nickelback. When the teachers returned to work after more than a week on the picket line, they had scored a big pay increase and crippled the teacher-evaluation testing at the heart of the strike, a resolution Emanuel unconvincingly called an "honest compromise."

Emanuel is one of many recent Democratic chief executives who have, with varying levels of enthusiasm and success, tried to confront government employee unions. California Gov. Jerry Brown struggled for two years to get a minor pension bill through the legislature. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in March got a partial pension reform that is expected to save $3 billion a year out of the Empire State's $133 billion annual budget. Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his job when he took on the teachers union. 

And since 2006 a very similar story—of a powerful Democratic mayor being slowly pecked to death by his former union allies—has been playing out in Los Angeles. Like Emanuel, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa looks like a throwback to the days when a union-friendly Democratic boss on Election Day could confidently send out goons to patrol the wards with two-by-fours and $50 bills. 

But where Emanuel seems generally to enjoy doing public battle, Villaraigosa—palpably needy in person and heroically unfaithful to now-ex-wife Corina Raigosa (the former Tony Villar's last name is a his-and-hers portmanteau)—always seemed to be enacting an inner psychodrama on L.A.'s grand stage. The city's school district is a notorious underperformer, and to his credit Villaraigosa spent much of his first term trying to do something about it. His efforts included trying to manage a tranche of schools directly without union work rules, encouraging charter schools, and finally denouncing the teachers union in a powerful 2010 speech that earned him praise from reformers all over the country. 

Unfortunately, it's not clear whether Villaraigosa, who graduated from the unaccredited People's College of Law and began his career as an organizer for United Teachers Los Angeles, wants to confront the unions or blame them for his failures. In 2007 he struck out in an attempt to win education reform in Sacramento but seemed eager to celebrate his own defeat soon after. The unions "had that place locked down," Villaraigosa told New Yorker reporter Connie Bruck. "I couldn't get a resolution that said, 'His name is Antonio Villaraigosa.' I mean, they had it locked down!" Bruck described Villaraigosa's "evident admiration for the union's display of raw power." 

That don't-look-at-me attitude still informs Villaraigosa's governance. After years of dire and deteriorating finances (L.A.'s budget hasn't been balanced for four years), the mayor allows government employee unions to carry out their tactic of ensuring that any slowdown in the rate of spending increases is immediately visible to Angelenos in the form of cuts to services. Villaraigosa, whose city manager calls for taxes on real estate sales, entertainment, petroleum extraction, and parking lot revenues, seems to believe voters will respond to office-hour reductions and crossing guard–free intersections by demanding tax hikes. 

To the extent possible in L.A.'s Putinesque democracy, voters actually respond by blaming the mayor. In his 2009 re-election race, Villaraigosa squeaked by with a small majority even though he was running virtually unopposed and outspent his nearest competitor (politically unaffiliated gadfly Walter Moore) by 15 to 1. 

That such an unimpressive figure was chosen to chair this year's Democratic National Convention is a sign of just how shallow the Democrats' bench is. Having already been promoted several notches above his level of incompetence, Villaraigosa fulfilled party watchers' worst fears during a controversial floor vote over the last-minute inclusion of the words God and Jerusalem in the party's platform. When the voice vote split with no clear winner, Villaraigosa appeared torn between his instinct for party machine strong-arming and his longing to appear statesmanlike. Painful moments of dead air ensued, during which the nearly 60-year-old mayor looked like a little boy overwhelmed by the complexities of a man's job. At last, he unbelievably declared a supermajority, to a chorus of boos that ended up being the convention's defining moment. 

There were more troubling fissures evident at the convention. Although speakers from former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm to the president himself engaged in bizarre encomiums to organized labor, union members complained loudly and repeatedly to the media of feeling slighted by the party leadership. If these had been Bill Clinton's New Democrats of the 1990s, the feeling might have made sense. But the current generation of prominent Democrats is among the most union-oriented in history. They're just out of money, and the unions know it. 

Rather than offering concessions to Emanuel, Villaraigosa, and other cash-strapped executives, unions have decided to go down swinging. They may be right to see compromise as death. But make no mistake: Laborgeddon is upon us, and it will have long-term consequences for the Democrats no matter who wins this election. 

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32 responses to “Unions vs. Democratic Mayors

  1. We might add San Diego to the list, from what I read on this article from City-Journal, they’re on the same hot water then Chicago and LA.
    http://www.city-journal.org/2012/cjc1114cr.html

    1. Maybe here in San Diego we’re in the same hot water, but Filner will be anything but antagonistic towards the unions, who helped get him elected.

      I suspect that The Joker will look at the previous Propositions passed and follow them to the “letter” but not necessarily to their intent. Any loophole that gives the City discretion to keep the union status quo will be driven through with an 18-wheeler.

  2. Yeah, I think a lot of people get it backwards when they talk about the Democrats and their cronies in the unions.

    It’s really the unions and their cronies in the Democratic Party. The UAW wasn’t working for Barack Obama; Barack Obama was working for them.

  3. Tim Cavanaugh, it appears that rumors of your death have been greatly exaggerated.

    1. WRONG. This is from the December issue, which was written back in March.

      1. Should we look for Tim to be weekend-blogging on Lucy’s thestagblog.com soon?

        1. If she can spare the $.02 a word…

  4. “”But I’ve been to public school… and I can tell you they didn’t miss much.”

    ZING!

  5. We need a ballot initiative repealing the law that allows public employees to unionize, passed when Brown left office in the 70’s.

    1. What kind of libertarianism are you promoting that would prevent, by law, people to voluntarily seek associations?

      1. The kind that doesn’t force workers to join unions when a majority of the employees there want one. In other words, the kind where majorities don’t tread on one’s freedom to negotiate their own salaries.

  6. The strike’s lasting damage was to the party that since at least the early 20th century has been labor’s best friend.

    Unfortunately, I see no evidence that this is true. Willful ignorance will triumph. The Democratic party, is, now and forevermore, the Party of the downtrodden.

  7. Sure, the walkout by Chicago Teachers Union members caused havoc for kids. “But I’ve been to public school,” Cavanaugh continues, “and I can tell you they didn’t miss much.”

    I can tell you that the pain of public school teacher strikes have less to do with our children being deprived of their precious education, and more to do with frazzled working parents trying to figure out what the hell they’re going to do for childcare during the strike.

  8. That such an unimpressive figure was chosen to chair this year’s Democratic National Convention is a sign of just how shallow the Democrats’ bench is.

    Is it? Or are they just out of touch? So out of touch, that they can pull an executive out of a visible, demonstrable disaster of governance but with a powerful Union cartel and entrenched goverment apparatchiks and say, “Heckuva job, Villar!”

  9. Cartels are parasites on whatever market they’ve latched onto. Can the cartel of labor be expected to behave dissimilarly to other parasites of its kind?

  10. unions have decided to go down swinging. They may be right to see compromise as death.

    Sort of how the union at Hostess felt when declaring the strike that caused the company to finally go under, leaving all the employees unemployed?

  11. Can we add Hostess to the reason drinking game?

  12. Chicago teachers union…
    I think I wouldn?t fit there

  13. Does Tim have to report these free lance earnings to the unemployment office?

  14. Tim,
    Apparently you’ve been to Washington State to sample the newly legalized drugs (pot). Because you’re dreaming. The Unions Pwn Democrats. Totally.

  15. The Democrats in California are rearranging deck chairs right now. Those in the national party are preparing to do the same.

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  17. The Democrat run cities have run out of money, and now their various constituencies are now fighting over the remaining loot. So who will find their budgets cut? The government school employees, the retired government employees on pensions, the various other government union workers (police, fire, library, staff, bus drivers, garbage workers, street sweepers, dog catchers, welfare workers, etc.) and money given to liberal charities (former ACORN, and other welfare agencies). It’s fun watching.

  18. Why does reason care? They better get used to cities because you are going to have to live in them.

  19. The Democrat party is owned by the public unions! Instead of public employees existing to serve citizens, citizens now exist to serve the unions. Paying ever increasing taxes to serve their out sized salaries and golden retirement.

    The combination of the Democrat party and their Pay Masters, the Mob controlled Public unions are the world,s largest criminal organization!

  20. We need to call this nonsense what it is. It is blackmail and it need to be stopped.

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  22. Emanuel is one of many recent Democratic chief executives who have, with varying levels of enthusiasm and success, tried to confront government employee unions. California Gov. Jerry Brown struggled for two years to get a minor pension bill through the legislature. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in March got a partial pension reform that is expected to save $3 billion a year out of the Empire State’s $133 billion annual budget. Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his job when he took on the teachers union.

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  23. Maybe here in San Diego we’re in the same hot water, but Filner will be anything but antagonistic towards the unions, who helped get him elected.
    ???? ??? ???
    ???? ?????? ?????

    I suspect that The Joker will look at the previous Propositions passed and follow them to the “letter” but not necessarily to their intent. Any loophole that gives the City discretion to keep the union status quo will be driven through with an 18-wheeler.

  24. Sure, the walkout by Chicago Teachers Union members caused havoc for kids. But I’ve been to public school, and I can tell you they didn’t miss much.

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