U.S.

The Unforgiving Public Servant

Los Angeles public school system teachers hold a rally at City Hall after going on strike in Los Angeles, Calif., January 14, 2019. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
Even the pandemic can't stop union politics in California

You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the Kafkaesque irony of Matthew 18:21–35. A king who had loaned one of his best servants the Roman-era equivalent of $10,000 one day told that servant it was time to pay up. The servant begged for more time. “Sure,” the king said. Relieved, the servant went out into the public square — and ran straight into a ragged fellow servant who owed the servant (let’s say) $10. “Pay up,” the first servant said to the second. The rest of the story is worth quoting directly:

So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will repay you!” He would not, but went and cast him into prison, until he should pay back that which was due. So when his fellow servants saw what was done, they were exceedingly sorry, and came and told to their lord all that was done. Then his lord called him in, and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt, because you begged me. Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, even as I had mercy on you?” His lord was angry, and delivered him to the tormentors, until he should pay all that was due to him. So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you don’t each forgive your brother from your hearts for his misdeeds

As I say, we don’t have to be Christians — don’t have to be religious at all — to see that this story is about unfairness/hypocrisy/double standards.

That’s how we might read the headlines from California this week. On the one hand, we hear union leaders banging the drum for social solidarity; on the other, we see them using coronavirus-induced panic to advance with utter cynicism the sorts of initiatives that demand they be delivered unto their tormenters (attending Catholic school, as I did, should do the trick).

Consider this morning’s story from the Los Angeles Times: “Citing the coronavirus emergency, the L.A. teachers union on Thursday called for a moratorium on new charter school approvals and a halt to new campus-sharing arrangements with charters.”

United Teachers of Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl has always hated charter schools — they are typically non-union and (just as typically) outperform union-run schools. But in a letter to the LA school board, governor Gavin Newsom, and state superintendent of public instruction Tony Thurmond, ACP cites the coronavirus as the new reason we can’t afford new charter schools — and especially the space-sharing deals that have allowed charters to move onto campuses with extra capacity in the low-income areas targeted by charters. “Low-income” means “dirty”: His concern, ACP insists, is for hygiene, but even that sounds remarkably like a callback to the water-fountain and bathroom apartheid of the Old South.

UTLA isn’t unique in leveraging the battle to insist upon its prerogatives. Across the state, California Teachers Association locals are stalling efforts to implement distance-learning technology. The governor’s “important emergency declarations have not suspended obligations to negotiate with unions,” CTA spokesperson Claudia Briggs said this week. Translation: Yes, yes, we’re in a crisis, but no mere pandemic can be allowed to infringe on union power.

In nearby Riverside County, the board of supervisors has approved massive new public debt to pay off a fraction of what the county owes its retired public employees. The reason: Like everyone else on Wall Street, California’s government-pension-fund managers have taken a sharp kick over the last few weeks. “The California Public Employees’ Retirement System’s fund balance stood about $335 billion Thursday, down from a record high of $404 billion one month ago, according to CalPERS officials,” writes a Sacramento Bee reporter.

California’s cities and counties now face the inevitable: They’ll have to plunder most of their residents in order to subsidize a few others. Riverside has already raised taxes, cut staff, and eliminated services in order to feed more cash into the chronically undercapitalized retirement fund.

Why would politicians approve these unsustainable retirement packages in the first place? Why would they find themselves so utterly dependent on Wall Street (even as many of them call for the elimination of the financial industry and the rich)?

The answer to both lies in the corrupt financial relationship between California’s politicians and the government-union leaders. The state’s largest government unions bring in a combined $1 billion per year in the form of union dues; they are by far the biggest “dark money” players in state and local politics. They use that financial power to elect politicians who, once in office, approve unsustainable retirement deals for the government workers. In this state, “class conflict” is a war waged by government retirees (especially its firefighters) living on guaranteed incomes that are paid for by everybody else.

But it’s not just government workers. Leaders of Unite Here 11, the union that claims to represent hotel workers throughout the region, say social justice demands that businesses, including high-profile amusement parks, continue to pay employees throughout the statewide shutdown ordered by the governor. Most were already doing so.

Yet that call for liberté, égalité, and fraternité during this plague came at about the same time as a text/tweet/bullhorn campaign to Unite 11’s own members: Whether you’ve been furloughed or made unemployed, “It is critical for you to keep paying your dues so that we can keep fighting,” the union’s leaders say. Fighting against whom and for whom is unclear: If you don’t pay, the union has also said, you’ll lose your union health insurance.

The time seems right for class war in California, the moment for workers sparked by outrage over such duplicity to deliver union leaders unto their tormentors. Real reform via the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME is on the way (my own California Policy Center has helped liberate nearly 200,000 public employees representing about $250 million in dues from their unions). But in the meantime, I suggest the tale of the Unforgiving Servant — and the two-hour punishment I received in second grade, kneeling in contemplation of a crude knockoff of Jan Van Eyck’s The Last Judgment.

Will Swaim is the president of California Policy Center and a co-host with David Bahnsen of National Review’s Radio Free California Podcast.

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