And if public-safety workers are split in their political allegiances, the elected class is unified in its deference to men and women in uniform, especially after a decade whose defining acts of heroism were performed by cops and firemen from New York and New Jersey. Politicians are loath to be seen as trying to nickel-and-dime our heroes.
Legislators have been able to see the sense through the sentimentality before, most notably in the case of education policy, where the elite consensus — from editorial boards to the Obama administration — is moving away from teacher hero-worship and the fetishization of things like class size (a preoccupation that happened to pad the coffers of the unions) and toward teacher accountability. But fiscal crisis notwithstanding, this has yet to happen in public safety.
Instead, public-safety unions have been able to buffalo the public into thinking that keeping the peace requires breaking the bank. What the public sees is scary billboards and lists of unenforceable statutes, and not, for instance, the fact that the Oakland Police Department backed out of a job-saving deal that would have required officers to make a mere 9 percent pension contribution, because the city could guarantee only one year, and not three, without further layoffs.
That police unions say they want to avoid layoffs yet act so as to make them necessary should leave little doubt that their priority is to preserve the privileges of their vested senior members at the expense of both the rookies who are usually first out the door and the communities they serve.
In solving the immediate crisis posed by the unions’ intransigence, state and local governments facing structural deficits must be allowed to lower labor costs without endangering public safety — by reducing compensation across the board instead of laying off staff. In most jurisdictions, governments can’t renegotiate the terms of existing union contracts, even in fiscal emergencies. This must change. Better yet, states should follow the lead of Virginia and ban collective bargaining by public employees.
We must take care that public-safety workers are not allowed to hide behind the badge. That they are our heroes does not excuse them from taking part in the difficult choices that must be made to restore solvency to state and local governments. If the unions won’t let them, and the elected class won’t make them, then the citizenry must shame them. Somebody must watch the watchmen.
— Daniel Foster is news editor of NRO. This article first appeared in the Aug. 30, 2010, issue of National Review.