While it’s not generally known, there’s a fair amount of tension between private sector unions and public sector unions, the latter of which, in these bleak, recessionary times, find themselves under assault for having negotiated their members generous retirement packages—entitlements that are underwritten by taxpayers.
As a former president of a private sector local union (AWPPW, Local 672), I confess to being prejudiced in favor of the private unions. Our admittedly parochial view was that we had to earn our keep in the marketplace in ways the public unions did not. Simple as that.
Put another way, our contracts had to be ones our employers could afford to pay. Unlike public sector negotiators who had the luxury of laying the whole deal off on the taxpayers, if our bosses couldn’t afford the terms, they simply wouldn’t sign the contract, no matter how much pressure we applied, how long we negotiated, or how loud we screamed.
Before I go further, let me make clear that this is not meant to demean or scapegoat the public unions. There’s already been enough of those smear going around—led by politicians and the media—without the private unions piling on.
Moreover, there’s no question of public unions being loyal, committed and industrious. Indeed, the most conscientious electrician I ever saw was a guy who’d worked for public utilities company in another state before moving to California to be closer to his wife’s family. We were all working people, none of us were getting rich, and the rivalry between the two sectors never rose above good-natured hazing.
Except when it concerned the police.
Even though there are plenty of law-and-order aficionados in labor unions (particularly in smoke-stack industries and in union shops with an abundance of military veterans), there is also a surprising number of union people who resent or are suspicious of the police.
These people remember that cops had acted as company goon squads to break up strikes back in the early days, and that it was the city police in riot gear who’d violently beaten student peace activists protesting the Vietnam war. You still see cops bullying and rousting groups of the poor or disenfranchised.
Also, union ideologues are uncomfortable and confused with the notion of city and state police belonging to a workers collective, a bizarre and incongruous arrangement that would have freaked out Marx and Engels in their day.
Cops are union members, but they don’t act like it. Not only do they rarely show the barest trace of solidarity with the labor movement, they tend to treat union people with contempt. But worst of all, the same managers who dislike everything organized labor stands for love the police. It’s a crazy, frustrating contradiction.
For instance, the same managers who griped about our pension plan had no problem with cops retiring at age 50—on the taxpayers’ dime. And the same managers who deplored union workers taking medical leaves (for any reason!) had no problem with cops going out on paid “stress medicals.” In fact, it was the police who practically invented the stress medical leave, one of the richest perks available.
Which raises the question: What did these guys — these police wannabes — think they were getting into when they applied for the force and were accepted into the academy? What sort of work did they expect to be doing? Did they honestly think the job would be devoid of stress?
But when you brought up these points, you got the standard retort: “Well, I’ll tell you what,” they would say somberly, “I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be a cop.” Our reply: “I wouldn’t want to be one, either. I also wouldn’t want to be a proctologist. But that doesn’t mean I want ass-doctors to rob us blind.”
Public sector unions are going to be hammered very hard and very soon. There’s no way to avoid it. Because state treasuries are broke, and there’s no money to pay the pensions, municipal and state officials are going to demand that contracts be re-opened and benefit language be modified.
When that happens, the police need to take their fair share of the hit. We’re not saying that cops should be unduly punished or made an example of, but policemen are, after all, public servants. The Great Recession is going to give them an opportunity to prove it.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org