Skip to main content

'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.


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.


Popular posts from this blog


I've been making some life changes lately — trying to use the time I have, now that I'm back in Kansas, to improve my health and lifestyle. Among the changes: More exercise. 30 minutes a day on the treadmill. Doesn't sound like a lot, but some is more than none, and I know from experience that getting overambitious early leads to failure. So. Thirty minutes a day.

One other thing: Yoga, a couple of times a week. It's nothing huge — a 15-minute flexibility routine downloaded from an iPhone app. But I've noticed that I'm increasingly limber.

Tonight, friends, I noticed a piece of trash on the floor. I bent over at the waist and picked it up, and threw it away.

Then I wept. I literally could not remember the last time I'd tried to pick something off the floor without grunting and bracing myself. I just did it.

Small victories, people. Small victories.

Liberals: We're overthinking this. Hillary didn't lose. This is what it should mean.

Nate Cohn of the New York Times estimates that when every vote is tallied, some 63.4 million Americans will have voted for Clinton and 61.2 million for Trump. That means Clinton will have turned out more supporters than any presidential candidate in history except for Obama in 2008 and 2012. And as David Wasserman of Cook Political Report notes, the total vote count—including third party votes—has already crossed 127 million, and will “easily beat” the 129 million total from 2012. The idea that voters stayed home in 2016 because they hated Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is a myth. We already know the Electoral College can produce undemocratic results, but what we don't know is why — aside from how it serves entrenched interests — it benefits the American people to have their preference for national executive overturned because of archaic rules designed, in part, to protect the institution of slavery. 

A form of choosing the national leader that — as has happened in …

I'm not cutting off my pro-Trump friends

Here and there on Facebook, I've seen a few of my friends declare they no longer wish the friendship of Trump supporters — and vowing to cut them out of their social media lives entirely.

I'm not going to do that.

To cut ourselves off from people who have made what we think was a grievous error in their vote is to give up on persuading them, to give up on understanding why they voted, to give up on understanding them in any but the most cartoonish stereotypes.

As a matter of idealism, cutting off your pro-Trump friends is to give up on democracy. As a matter of tactics, cutting off your pro-Trump friends is to give up on ever again winning in a democratic process.

And as a long-term issues, confining ourselves to echo chambers is part of our national problem.

Don't get me wrong: I expect a Trumpian presidency is a disaster, particularly for people of color. And in total honesty: My own relationships have been tested by this campaign season. There's probably some damage…