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Take Down the Union, Jack | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Take Down the Union, Jack

I'm in Paris, attending (and writing about) a conference in honor of Tony Judt, sponsored by The New York Review of Books. I am without wireless, and so am literally posting this from my Blackberry.

I must, therefore, be brief.

My new "Think Again" column takes up some of the holes of Jon Stewart's critique of Fox News, as well as the overall lameness of Chris Wallace's response, and can be found here.

One more thing. Everything dies, baby, that's a fact. But sometimes we can recall, and appreciate, all that we miss. Here are three places to enjoy, and appreciate the magic and the majesty of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, featuring the big man on sax, here, here and here.

Now here’s Reed:

Take Down the Union, Jack

I’m not sure what persuaded the New York Times to run this thinly veiled hit piece on public union pensions this past Wednesday, but if you read this lengthy story by Charles Duhigg you’ll come across more than a few right-wing talking points, glaring omissions, and misleading financial numbers. What’s even more surprising is that its author, Duhigg, was among a team of Times reporters that produced “The Reckoning,” a 2008 Pulitzer Prize-finalist series on the roots of the recent financial meltdown, yet Wall Street’s gross incompetence gets no mention as the proximate cause of much of the ongoing public pension shortfalls.

Instead, right upfront, we get the not-so-subtle framing that public unions essentially enjoy an inherent conflict of interest when dealing with their management counterparts:

But public workers have a unique relationship with elected officials, because government employees are effectively negotiating with bosses whom they can campaign to vote out of office if they don’t get what they want. Private unions, in contrast, don’t usually have the power to fire their members’ employers.

This “unique relationship” framing has become a fundamental plank in conservative opposition to public sector unions. So much so, that David Brooks might suggest to Duhigg that the latter buy the next round at the bar for so closely appropriating the language of an anti-union Brooks column from this past February:

Private sector unions confront managers who have an incentive to push back against their demands. Public sector unions face managers who have an incentive to give into them for the sake of their own survival. Most important, public sector unions help choose those they negotiate with. Through gigantic campaign contributions and overall clout, they have enormous influence over who gets elected to bargain with them, especially in state and local races.

Perhaps we should at least be grateful the Times story stops short of accusing public unions of staging a “silent coup” or agitating to strip them of their right to vote as other right-wing figures have recently.

Still, Duhigg knows that any politically sensitive piece of objective journalism like this must include a cover-your-ass “to be sure” section, which typically contains some artificially weakened contradictory evidence or a stunning lack of proper context with regard to the entire premise of one’s story. Here, Duhigg shows you how’s it’s done:

Public employee unions are hardly the only group involved in bare-knuckles politics. Businesses lobby fiercely and executives make hefty campaign donations.

And there you go. In a several thousand-word piece that no doubt took weeks to report and edit, that is the extent of the article’s contextualization of the contractual obligations due to public union members like teachers and firefighters versus those of, say, the traders and executives at TARP recipients Goldman Sachs and AIG. In terms of shining examples of retirement excess, someone like this irresponsible bank CEO, who still collected an $18-million golden parachute in the midst of the economic meltdown, just doesn’t rate a mention, not when Duhigg can find a Laguna Beach lifeguard who retired in 2008 at age 57 and is now raking in $113,000 a year. OK, so the latter actually had to save lives as part of his job and all, sure, but other than that what did he really contribute to our society that deserves such lucrative pay?

Of course, you could argue that both of the above examples are egregious cases of cherry-picking to support an argument, and you’d have a point. In fact, this retired-public-employee-with-six-figure-pension segment, which is fast replacing the welfare queen stereotype as a popular conservative trope, makes up less than one percent of all of California’s pension recipients. A vast majority of that state’s retirees earn far less, as even Duhigg acknowledges in the story. Nevertheless, Duhigg clearly thinks he scored a hit on the outrage meter with his retired lifeguard earning a six-figure pension example, so much so that he makes a point of including another one later in the story.

The broader pension data notwithstanding, the subtext of the illustrated examples is clear—public unions have run amok. But to support this implication of reckless pension-stuffing, Duhigg doesn’t cite examples of union corruption, bribery, or labor leader kickbacks; instead, he provides examples of public union employees doing dastardly democratic things like organizing, campaigning, attending public meetings, and holding elected officials accountable to ensure they live up to their promises (or switching their allegiance when they don’t). Perhaps the silliest moment comes when his reporting lays bare a sinister sounding plan “informally known” as “Operation Domino:”

[T]he goal was straightforward: persuade one city to increase salaries and pensions for workers, and then approach neighboring municipalities and argue that if the increases weren’t matched, the city’s police, firefighters or other employees might quit, in large numbers, and go elsewhere.

The gall of these union workers, using things like the free market, collective bargaining, and the law of supply and demand to get higher wages, benefits, and pensions for their members. And in a capitalist society, no less? I mean, who do they think they are, multinational corporations? No wait, strike that, union members at least pay taxes.

However, it’s not just the anecdotal examples of political power being used to push for higher pensions that matter, according to the Times. Instead, it’s the “ever escalating payouts” themselves that are causing financial hardship in state after state. However, when it comes to digging into what actually led to these pension deficits all around the country, Duhigg glosses over long-term systemic problems, leaving readers with a skewed sense of what caused these crises.

For example, in a story that spends so much time scrutinizing how pensions payouts are affecting state and local budget deficits in California, the complete absence of any mention of that state’s onerous Proposition 13 is a striking oversight. This self-inflicted budgetary millstone, which is considered a crowning achievement among starve-the-beast conservatives, strictly caps property tax increases, making it extremely difficult for the state, and cities in particular, to adapt to financial shortfalls. As a result, all parts of the public sector—not just state pensions—have increasingly fallen under the budget axe.

Likewise, in my home state of New Jersey, the current pension deficits are thanks, in large part, to a long-running history of political negligence and mismanagement. Certainly, if the public employee unions enjoyed so much influence, one would think that they would have forced the state to pay its full share into their pension system more than just two years out of the last 17. But alas, this is not the case. Starting with Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman, skipping out on pension obligations in favor of tax cuts to the wealthy has become favorite New Jersey budget gimmick, one that current Governor Chris Christie—for all his supposed fiscal discipline—has similarly repeated.

But taken individually, even these systemic state pension problems might have been easily navigable had not Wall Street malfeasance imploded the economy three years ago. (For more on how even the current state pension crises are “overblown,” check out this Huffington Post article.) Here, though, Duhigg chooses a noticeably vague, almost act-of-God type phrase to briefly describe what happened: “When the financial crisis hit in 2008…” Without any qualifiers regarding the man-made causes of the financial crisis, this passive language has a sense of natural disaster inevitably about it, as if the public union’s pension plans were the equivalent of building a straw house on the wrong side of Mississippi River levees. They were bound to be “hit” and fail eventually, in other words, and so the unions have no one to blame but their own greedy selves for the political attacks and benefit cutbacks they now face.

This, in a nutshell, captures the strong headwinds that blow against more than just organized labor these days. Simply put, the media has grown weary of rehashing the ethical (and surely criminal) activity that nearly bankrupted this country and is instead now preoccupied with how much sacrifice can be wrung out of poor and the middle class in terms of cutbacks to union pensions, Social Security, and Medicare. Those who paid their dues (both literally and figuratively), worked hard, and looked forward to a comfortable retirement are now being bullied into shouldering a share of a financial burden that was recklessly manufactured by others.

The final scene in the Times story clearly demonstrates how this ongoing debate continues to play out on a personal scale all around the country. In it, Duhigg depicts three union firefighters—“all of whom declined to give their names,” he says somewhat ominously—sitting at a town meeting where a conservative city council member lays out his plan for massive public employee layoffs. “‘I’m not here on anything official,’ one [firefigther] said. ‘We just like the council to know that we’re watching them.’” As well they should, particularly if the national media becomes increasingly complicit in the systematic dismantling of their future. 

The Mail
Carl Cole
Muscle Shoals
Finally, reason for you to visit the fly-over state of Alabama (or commit to a pilgrimage to the R&B landscape that is Muscle Shoals):  The Drive-By Truckers will be performing as the celebrated performer at the annual W.C. Handy festival on July 30.  Also on the bill is Pat Hood's dad's band, The Decoys.  Everyone knows about DBT but The Decoys are truly a hidden gem and David Hood is the last of the original Swampers to be actively playing. (actually, The Decoys play in town pretty often and for very little compensation. And they are terrific!) Spooner Oldham and Donnie Fritz will also be on board. If this show isn't great, we will all be shocked.

Tickets are here. The venue is the concert hall of our local university.

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