It may be tempting to view the New York transit workers’ strike as a local story. After all, the local narrative—the nation’s largest city shut down at the whim of an arrogant and reckless union—is pretty compelling.
But, in fact, the transit strike is part of a national phenomenon: In cities across the country, voters may cast ballots, but it’s really the public employees who rule.
During the past 30 years, public-employee unions have largely won the battle for urban political power by default. Other traditional power centers—neighborhood associations, small business organizations, reform groups—have over time receded from urban politics. Businesses, after all, can always go elsewhere, either to the suburbs or overseas; frustrated individuals often get worn down, electing to move on or give up. Public sector unions, by contrast, have remained powerful, withstanding occasional assaults by reformist mayors of both parties.
Democrats are usually seen as the beneficiaries of this situation, since they often receive cash and organizational backing from unions. But there is a downside to this support, which the current strike illustrates. City councils in New York, Los Angeles, and most other major cities are dominated by Democrats. Most council elections in New York, for example, are determined in the Democratic primary, which consistently sees low voter turnout. (In 2003, turnout in the city council primaries was 11 percent.) This magnifies the power of unions—since a handful of highly organized voters can easily sway an election—and makes Democratic politicians more or less beholden to the wishes of public employees. New York, where several prominent council members have already expressed support for the transit workers’ union, may be the most obvious example of this problem; but it is hardly the only city afflicted.
Back in the 1960s Gotham was in a league by itself in terms of offering generous contracts for public employees. But now it has lots of competition from other cities, whose councils seem willing to grant luxurious raises and pensions for public workers.
Los Angeles, once known as an anti-labor town, may even be more far gone than New York. City workers there enjoy among the highest pay and best pension plans in the country. The mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, is a former public-sector union organizer. The city council, for the most part, is made up of politicians backed by unions. Only two or three of the fifteen members can even be thought capable of challenging their supposed employees. Former Councilman Martin Ludlow recently gave up his seat to become someone who can really influence legislation: head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
As in New York, such ties have consequences. Recently Villaraigosa reached a deal with employees of the Department of Water and Power that calls for 3.25 percent annual wage increases for 5 years, with a built-in cost-of-living clause. It would be inconceivable to see any private corporation—even a profitable one—make such a deal. But unsurprisingly, other unions, starting with the 8,000 member Engineers and Architects Association, are now demanding a similar arrangement. This union that runs the city’s airport has threatened to strike and perhaps shut the place down. So far, Villaraigosa has gamely tried to hold firm, pointing to a city deficit estimated between $200 and $300 million. But he is under pressure from his own base, and it’s therefore hard to see him standing his ground for long.
Similar situations can be found in other California cities, such as San Francisco and San Jose. The story at the state level is no different. With public employees having defeated California’s muscle-bound but politically hapless governor during the recent ballot-initiative fights, union domination of California politics is only more complete. Unions are closely allied with the Democratic majority in the state legislature. One of their own, former labor organizer Fabian Nunez, is even the assembly speaker.
This pattern of public-employee dominance is fairly universal, particularly in older urban centers. Perhaps saddest has been the experience of declining cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Detroit, where union power has kept public payrolls large and pay rates high even as jobs and populations continue to fall. Two-thirds of New York’s city council members are former government employees or workers in the health-care and social-service bureaucracies, notes Steven Malanga in City Journal. Politicians such as Cleveland’s Mayor Jane Campbell and Kansas City’s Kay Barnes got their starts in the publicly funded social-service industry. According to a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “If Pittsburgh had a brand today, it might well be ‘Labor Won’t Let Us.’ Sizable cost-cuts and service enhancements in schools and local government cry out to be done—and would be done—but powerful unions, now mostly of public rather than private sector employees, stand in the way. You won’t find their veto power in municipal charters or state constitutions, but it is real.” This description of a labor event held during Cleveland’s 2001 mayoral election says a lot about the relationship between unions and urban politicians: “The candidates obeyed like dutiful schoolchildren,” the Cleveland Plain-Dealer wrote. “They scribbled notes and spoke only when asked to pledge their fidelity to organized labor in two minutes or less.” Another Plain-Dealer story from the same election was headlined, “candidates bow at labor’s restored altar.” “In politics,” the story noted, “they call that clout.”
In New York, transit workers have a better contract than any other union in the city. Those who drive trains, for instance, have starting salaries twice as high as police officers. They also have what’s called 55-25—after twenty-five years on the job and at age fifty-five, they can retire at half-pay with lifetime health benefits and no co-pay. The union is asking for a new retirement option beginning at age fifty, at a time when many private-sector workers are continuing their careers into their seventies. In the increasingly unorganized, highly Darwinian private sector, few employees have anything like this kind of arrangement.
Despite this, it’s understandable why transit workers felt they could get away with striking: They understand just how much power they wield, and just how scared public officials are of defying them. Governor Pataki, whose appointees sit on the MTA board, has avoided the mess entirely, literally leaving New York the night before the strike to boost his ill-considered presidential run by appearing in New Hampshire. His explanation: Better to leave this to “the professionals.” Meanwhile, Mayor Bloomberg tried to stay on labor’s good side during his reelection waltz by siding with the city council to grant other public unions cushy deals. Hizzoner didn’t start talking tough until the eve of the strike. And in Philadelphia, transit workers struck this fall and got pretty much everything they wanted. Given all this, why should New York’s transit workers settle for anything less than complete victory?
For the moment, New York’s transit strike may be Bloomberg’s problem. But at the national level, the excessive power wielded by public-employee unions is largely a problem for Democrats. It is Democrats who control most big city halls. It is Democrats who are tied most intimately to the public-sector unions. And it is Democrats who will lose out most when the cities they run no longer work.
—Harry Siegel and Joel Kotkin