The way labor unions are depicted today is reminiscent of the way urban African Americans were depicted in the crime-ridden 1970s. As the writer bell hooks (she uses all lower-case) observed some years ago, the scariest thing for white America wasn’t snakes, or Satan worshippers, or outlaw motorcycle gangs; rather it was young, black, male predators, as portrayed by the media.
On May 3, Mickey Kaus, the self-described “neoliberal” and U.S. Senate candidate from California, wrote an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times in which he blamed labor unions for the country’s economic woes. That the article appeared in the vehemently anti-union LA Times was no surprise; that it contained so many unchallenged and easily refutable accusations was a bit startling….even for the Times.
First of all, let’s give Kaus his proper due. He highlights the generous pension plans that California’s government workers negotiated for themselves back in the days when the state was flush and when the media still rooted for the middle-class instead of chastising it. Kaus properly points out that, because California is now broke, these entitlements stick in the craw of the state’s taxpayers who are forced to underwrite them.
Many of these citizens have lost their jobs or have seen their own private-sector pensions chipped away or eliminated entirely. People are furious. As Kaus notes, expecting these taxpayers to contribute to what they see as lavish civil service pensions—and to do it without complaining—is unrealistic. But pension plans negotiated decades ago is a separate issue entirely.
Kaus goes on to make two absurd charges.
First, he blames the United Auto Workers (UAW) for the decline of the U.S. auto industry, as if those many layers of arrogant and over-compensated Detroit executives, and those years and years of short-sighted management decisions were somehow the union’s fault.
As stubbornly anti-union as Kaus is, all he need do is look at Southwest Airlines to see the error of his ways. Unions don’t impede companies; indeed, they often make them more efficient. Southwest Airlines is not only the most-unionized carrier in the industry, it’s the most successful. Why? Because, unlike Detroit’s Gross Pointe nabobs, Southwest’s managers are smart and humble.
Kaus also fails to mention that Japan’s spectacular entry into the U.S. auto market was more or less rigged. To break into the American market, cars were sold at less than cost—subsidized by the Japanese government, an illegal practice known as “dumping.” Either Kaus didn’t know that dumping occurred or he purposely failed to mention it so as not to damage his argument.
Second, Kaus blames the poor performance of America’s public schools on the teachers’ union, a charge that is patently false. Anyone who has paid attention to the issue knows it’s a gutless, utterly counter-factual accusation to make.
The reasons why private schools do better than public schools have nothing to do with the teachers’ union. Whether we wish to admit it or not, the antecedents are purely societal. In truth, unionized public school teachers are better qualified than non-union private school teachers, something that Kaus, again, either doesn’t realize or has purposely omitted.
Public school teachers are required by law to have college degrees and teaching credentials. Private school teachers are not. Moreover, public schools pay more than the privates. So, unless Kaus believes that less certification and lower wages are going to attract better employees, he needs to reconsider. (Think of the medical profession, Mickey. Are those with less schooling and lower wages going to be the best doctors?)
What the privates do have that the public schools don’t are better students and more attentive parents. Attendance at a public school is compulsory until age sixteen….which, potentially, makes it a zoo. Unlike the privates, public school teachers have no leverage. Students can’t be made to participate. They can’t be forced to do homework. They can’t be held back without parental approval. Disruptive students usually can’t be expelled.
Even David Brewer, the ex-Navy admiral who served as Superintendent of the LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District), recognized that the problem wasn’t the union. Brewer stated, “Good schools are generally found in good neighborhoods, and bad schools are generally found in bad neighborhoods.” Simple as that.
As for Mickey Kaus, the question is: Does he honestly believe it’s the unions who are hurting America, or is he using them as scapegoats, hoping to appeal to voters? If it’s the former, it means he’s abysmally ignorant; if it’s the latter, it means he’s a dishonest demagogue. In either case, he’ll fit in nicely in the U.S. Senate, should he win.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org