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'Liberals Against Labor Unions'

That’s the title of a very short essay I have in the July issue of Philadelphia Magazine. (It’s not online, that I can find, but it’s on newsstands now.) It’s a piece I fear will cost me a few friends in this town--and possibly beyond--and so I hesitated to write it. I don’t like making my friends mad!

But: I wrote it. And I stand by it. Now I’d like to elaborate.

The central point of the essay is that the city’s public labor unions--in virtually every sector of public governance--contribute to the sclerotic can’t-do-much-but-do-it-expensively-and-slowly-but-intrusively nature of Philadelphia governance. Let’s face it: Governance in this city sucks. They’re not the only culprits, but mostly public unions appear to act as constituencies that are owed favors and pandering instead of partners in making the city better.

It hurts to write that, because I believe it’s not a coincidence that the decline of unionization in America has coincided with stagnating middle class wages. And I don’t think you forfeit your right to seek a better life just because you go into public service.

But...

Here’s a good place to go back and examine one’s underlying principles. Conservatives are for small, limited government. They tend to believe--or at least, say--that liberals are for big government, possibly for its own sake. I’ve never felt that way, personally. But I do want government to do stuff--to provide infrastructure, education, policing, and a safety net for those who are unemployed, sick, or old, a regulatory framework to protect us from unnecessary harm--so that we as citizens are freed to make the most of our gifts and resources. Bigger government is a byproduct of that, but it’s not the goal.

The thing is: I think conservatives are right to some extent that a bigger government is one that’s more likely to reach into your life in ways that are burdensome instead of helpful. So liberals (like me) who advocate for doing all these things should be at the forefront of making sure they’re done well, so that the burden is more than offset by the benefits. And when they’re not done well, we have to examine where the fault lies.

In Philadelphia, there are many reasons that governance is so sclerotic. The Republican Party gave up being competitive a long time ago, letting Democrats get fat and happy in their mediocrity. Huge chunks of the civil service are patronage machines aimed at delivering jobs to allies instead of services to citizens. Our recent mayors have either been (let’s be honest here) shady or (in the case of the current occupant) surprisingly ineffective at working the levers of power. L&I could get its own paragraph here.

But Philadelphia’s public unions also, from what I can see, carry a measure of responsibility. So we have to deal with the fact that their pensions currently outstrip our ability to pay for them; we have to deal with the apparent disregard they have for the citizens they serve; we have to deal with how they often seem to stand in the way of reforming government for fear of losing jobs.

(One thing: My piece was written and in the editor’s hands long before the school district’s blue-collar workers offered $20 million in givebacks to save jobs. Knowing that would’ve tempered how I wrote the original piece, admittedly. But I think the long-term trends are nonetheless clear.)

I am not Scott Walker. I am not a Republican. I don’t want to end public unions. (Neither does Walker, exactly; remember, that police unions were exempted from his Wisconsin crackdown, which means the moves there have been about consolidating Republican power rather than defending some small-government principle.) I want them to do better.

Living in Philadelphia has made me both more and less sympathetic to my libertarian-leaning friends. I’m not sure this (or any big city) can survive without a strong central government. But I also see how such a government, when it’s ossified and not-at-all nimble, makes the city a worse place to live. Right now, Philadelphia’s government makes this city a worse place to live for many of us who simply want to live and earn a living here. The public unions are part of the reason why. If those of us who are their natural allies acknowledge this, we can help them be part of fixing the problem.

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