In the troubled light of recent events in Wisconsin, the questions many of us have begun to ask regarding the value and necessity of public sector unions urgently require to be answered. Do they contribute to the public welfare or have they become at best distractions and at worst militant organizations aggressively invading the social and political arena to achieve their ends? My own experience once predisposed me in their favor, but the love affair ultimately went sour.
When I first began teaching at a community college in Montreal, my salary was so anorexic it scarcely made ends meet. Hell, it scarcely made beginnings meet. I was forced to rely on loans and to take on extra jobs just to keep afloat, for several years putting in a 15-hour-a-day work schedule. It was only thanks to the teachers’ union that I and those in my position were eventually able to extricate ourselves from these sweatshop conditions and actually concentrate on teaching rather than surviving, though we had barely contrived to raise our living standard above the subsistence level.
Finally, the year came when the union won a comparatively reasonable contract from the government employer, enabling many teachers to contemplate for the first time the miracle of discretionary spending. This bonanza, such as it was, lasted for only a brief period, for the Parti Québécois administration announced its intention to let the contract expire and unilaterally roll back the salary increase it had agreed to, instantly stripping us of 20 percent of our income. The union called a general strike and we were soon out in the streets, carrying placards, picketing the premier’s Montreal office and occupying the campus premises.
We were animated by a feeling of binding camaraderie as the various teachers’ unions across the province had joined together in a spirit of presumably unshakable “solidarity,” otherwise known as the Common Front. We knew we had justice on our side, were confident of public support and were convinced of inevitable victory in what was both a moral and legal struggle to resist the encroachment of arbitrary authority and reclaim our abrogated rights. But we had underestimated the ferocity of the government’s response. To begin with, it refused to budge and begin renegotiating in good faith and instead threatened collective dismissals. It then imposed punitive financial penalties on the strikers, moving to deduct two days’ pay for every workday missed, so that we found ourselves on the receiving end of a triple whammy: a violated contract costing us one fifth of our wages, no salary coming in, and forfeiture of future earnings.
Still we persisted, ready to go the limit, until we assembled one morning, placards in hand, to learn that we had been betrayed by a sister union, the large and influential Centrale de l’enseignement du Québec (CEQ). This was essentially the Francophone teachers union, headed by one Yvon Charbonneau, a long-time Marxist, also denounced as “seriously anti-Semitic” by the Canada Free Press—which had nothing to do with his caving in but augured poorly for the future. The strike quickly collapsed, our spirit had been broken, and for years to come bitterness and recrimination eroded whatever enthusiasm we had once brought to the classroom, despite being critically underpaid. We were never able to recover. As for the redoubtable Monsieur Charbonneau, he was eventually posted by the Canadian government as ambassador to France—the plum appointment in the diplomatic service.
In the interim between then and now, the public sector unions have gradually redefined their social and economic platform into an ideological one, devoting their attention and resources less to the welfare of their members than to defaming the state of Israel and joining the BDS movement, the dubious Charbonneau having furnished an illustrious precedent. Indeed, in these intervening years we have seen the unions go from organizations dedicated to serving the interests of their members to entrenched corporations intent only on protecting their management prerogatives and advancing their own political agenda. Their constituents are the least of their concerns. Most public unions today (and some private sector ones) resemble not their communitarian predecessors but the very Quebec government that flouted the law and imposed its dictatorial will upon its employees. The boot is now on the other foot.
When we look to Wisconsin, we note that the inversion is not entirely symmetrical. Although the public sector unions function like medieval palatinates, autonomous power centers whose primary motive is to retain their privileges while interfering in matters of state, they have the backing of a significant corps of activist members who are themselves not averse to breaking the law when it suits them. So in a sense these unions do represent their members’ interests, as well as defending the perquisites of their own controlling hierarchies.
Nonetheless, things have changed dramatically. Public sector unions have now becomes adjuncts of one or another political party, raising money for their benefactors and electioneering on their behalf: in Quebec and the ROC (Rest of Canada), the affiliation is with the socialist-leaning, anti-Israel parties; in the U.S., they have become strong contributing factors to the Democrats, if not a wing of the party itself. The thuggish spectacle of these unions and their collaborators in Madison, Wisconsin, disrupting the public square, occupying the state Capitol, issuing death threats against fiscally responsible legislators and holding the law in contempt is only a sign that they have outlived their usefulness and have become, not genuine defenders of workers’ rights, but a destabilizing menace to the public weal.
All human institutions naturally deteriorate in the course of time and conclude by abusing the mission they had initially espoused. And at such times, courage and hard thinking are needed to ensure renewal of original purpose and a return to founding principle. This is certainly true of the teachers’ unions in the U.S., once necessary and beneficial, which have degenerated to such an extent that their core function is no longer to improve the pedagogical milieu while providing a decent living, but to exploit the taxpayer, to expand their entitlements and exemptions, and to preserve the conditions under which not merit but mediocrity increasingly flourishes. This is why their power needs to be curtailed and their organizing principles rethought.
Unions—and today we refer chiefly to public sector unions—were not meant to be political mini-parties manipulating campaign funds or adopting foreign policy initiatives. They were not designed to be power blocs profiting at the expense of society at large. And they were certainly not commissioned to serve as a presidential militia or a revolutionary vanguard determined to unleash, as Liz Blaine puts it, “a multi-pronged attack to undermine America’s democratic process and its financial and economic stability using class and race warfare.” As Roger Kimball writes, the real issue is not “whether public employees should have the right to bargain collectively, but whether public employees should be answerable to the people or to the party they helped elect.” These unions have now become the bane of public life and it is time that government—that is, decent, sensible and trustworthy government—acts to rein in their profligacy, their wayward independence and their autocratic methods.
Such a responsible administration, at whatever level it exercises its mandate, would not follow the draconian route adopted by the Quebec government of yore. It would work within the framework of legality since it has the tools at its disposal to rectify the flagrant abuse of union power. Unlike the Quebec government, it has reason and right on its side. Of course, there will always be the local versions of Yvon Charbonneau to contend with, such as the Democratic senators in Wisconsin who fled the scene in order to stymie debate, Secretary of State Doug La Follette who put off signing the government bill into law and District Attorney Ismael Ozanne and Judge Maryann Sumi who issued restraining orders based on a technicality. We see similar tactics currently at work in Indiana where House Democrats have staged an exodus to prevent a quorum.
Even so, despite the sound and fury, the illegal flight of legislators, the massive propaganda onslaughts and public dissidence, all that is needed is the mettle, resolve and integrity that Governor Scott Walker has shown thus far to carry out the long-deferred reformation of syndicalist policy.