Charles Lane of the Washington Post’s editorial page staff has an interesting blogpost on the perilous alliance of the public employee unions and the Democratic party. “A party that depends on the public employees to get elected,” he writes, “will have trouble reaching out to the wider electorate—i.e., the people who pay the taxes that support public employees’ salaries and pensions.” He says this could be a particular problem for California’s Jerry Brown, New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Maryland’s Martin O’Malley if they are elected governor in November. Excellent points, and the Post deserves commendation for its stout though unavailing support of D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and his school superintendent Michele Rhee.
I made similar points almost exactly a month ago in my September 17 Examiner column on the split between gentry liberals and public employee unions. This appeared three days after Fenty, supported by most D.C. whites (= gentry liberals), was defeated by Vincent Gray, supported by most blacks, who tend to identify with public employees at least in part because public employment was for many years the main and almost the only avenue of upward mobility for black Americans. Interestingly, the Illionois state Senate seat Barack Obama drew for himself in the redistricting following the 2000 Census consisted almost entirely of these two groups: about two-thirds of the voters were blacks living in the almost entirely black South Side wards and about one-third were gentry liberals living in the Hyde Park and Kenwood neighborhoods around the University of Chicago and in the Loop and Near North Side apartment-and-townhouse neighborhoods farther north. Obama declined to take any position at all in the D.C. mayoral contest, although Fenty was one of the first elected officials to endorse him for president: a classic case of “Some of my friends are for the bill and some of my friends are against the bill and I’m always with my friends.” On education issues Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan seem to be siding with the gentry liberals on some issues and the teachers unions on others.
Charles Lane has the right idea. If you’re the party of big government it’s in your long-term interest to deliver big government services as effectively and inexpensively as possible. The public employee unions tend to be your adversary, not your ally, up and down the line: their incentives are to increase costs and reduce accountability. Franklin Roosevelt understood this and opposed collective bargaining with public employee unions. 1960s liberals thought they knew better. As on some other issues, FDR had better judgment.