Self Interested Members of Unions and Taxpayer Groups
I’ll be the first to acknowledge the prominence of self interest in the development and ascendance of local taxpayer groups. Members take up political arms, as it were, for a variety of reasons, and often those reasons are decidedly materialistic in nature. Therewith comes the sliver of truth to Phil’s cartoonish characterization of the simmering conflict in multiple Rhode Island communities:
Individual union members are taxpayers and voters. They like all the rest of us act out of self interest. It is in their self interest to join the workplace union and be represented by professionals. Too bad this choice is not nearly as available in the private sector. They like the rest of us have the right to try to effect the policies of their government. They also have the right to effect the policies of their unions through democratic means as David writes, something that is not available to private sector workers unless they belong to a union or an association.
Most of these public sector workers will work in their communities for 30 or more years. They will see politicians come and go. Teachers particularly will see administrators come and go. They will see many school committee people come and go. Also they will see the taxpayer groups that form and make their noise come and go. But through that time they will stay and continue to do the essential work in those communities. That and their selflessness in joining together as a group will sustain them and their respective communities. Not so with the taxpayer groups. As you mention, Justin, when times are bad, people pay more attention to their local government. That’s not a bad thing at all, but do not try to equate that with the longtime commitment to a community of the teacher or other public sector worker. Formed out of anger and selfishness these taxpayer groups fall apart after a short time. It’s hard to keep people worked up and angry enough to overcome their basic selfishness. They stay involved for a while and then move back to more comfortable pursuits or to things that meet their self interest more directly. Most people would rather be with their families than sitting in overheated rooms being bored to tears or trying to manufacture outrage that amounts to pettiness. How could anyone keep doing that for thirty years?
In this picture, the unions are sustained by their selfless devotion to each other and to the community, while taxpayer groups appear in a flash of anger and then dissipate, leaving no trace. The intricacies of human relationships between people of differing personalities, goals, and interests seems not to enter Phil’s design.
Whatever the motivation for their formation, taxpayer groups pull together residents who share certain principles and worldviews, and not surprisingly, find themselves forming lasting friendships. Meanwhile, they learn the ropes of local politics and policies, and some percentage continue their civic involvement ever after. Such groups also build structures, from PACs to transparency mechanisms that a handful of them, at least, will think it worth the minimal effort to maintain. In short, pretty much for the lifetimes of those involved, the public eye will remain more open than it was.
But sure, I’ll acknowledge that an improved economy and achievement of some threshold of repair to the damaged governing system will drain fuel from the political machine that makes such groups a force to be reckoned with. There is a need to fulfill, in a local society, and these groups arise to address it, and the time and effort involved act as a mechanism for defusing them when they are no longer needed.
That, in essence, is the problem with public sector unions. A union, by its nature, pushes for the benefits of its members, and when workers are oppressed and individually powerless, the society pulls them together in an organized way to address the problem. There is no mechanism, however, to cause them to dissipate or hibernate when their purpose has been served. If a union were to shift gears to neutral because the circumstances of its workers had achieved an equilibrium of comfort and occupational demand, the workers would soon do away with the costly advocacy structure. So, the unions keep the push going, so that they can convince their members of their value.
The community suffers, because the unions demand increasing percentages of local resources. They become, indeed, the focus of local government, and avarice sets in. Even in a short time of observation, I’ve seen too many union decisions favoring raises at the cost of young teachers’ jobs to buy the selflessness argument. Moreover, anybody who’s compared public-sector and private-sector jobs in Rhode Island can’t but laugh at the notion that those in the public sector stick around for thirty years out of a sense of altruism and community.