Which Side Are You On?

by Joe Fitzgerald 

Dartmouth’s basketball team voted this week to unionize. It’s a shame Harrisonburg’s police officers can’t.

The basketball players will join the SEIU, Service Employees International Union, a kind of super union for people who don’t qualify for other unions. SEIU strongly supports health care and a higher minimum wage, making it a strong supporter of Democratic candidates.

The five Democrats on Harrisonburg’s City Council say police can’t even talk to them about collective bargaining. It would be too expensive. This from a council that approved the pig-in-a-poke, bait-and-switch Bluestone Town Center and is spending money to make the city more homeless-friendly. Priorities, I suppose.

Democrats created the middle class. They did it in part with the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. There were other factors, and anti-union folks will mention those as if they negate the effect of the NLRA instead of supplementing it. Twelve years later, Republicans passed the Taft-Hartley Act to weaken the NLRA. There were details, but that’s the big picture.

Many union members by the 1980s didn’t remember that big picture, voting for the union-busting Reagan and cheering the union-busting Thatcher. Others continued to make union membership and activities central to their thinking, although their grasp of the big picture can also be debated. One coal miner in a 1980s wildcat strike, told that the Taft-Hartley Act had been invoked to stop the strike, said, “Let Taft Hartley dig the coal then.”

Many Democrats have forgotten the big picture as well, with the recent action by the Harrisonburg City Council being a case in point. Criticism of the party from the right and from the far left accuses it of forgetting the middle class. There’s no quicker way to forget the middle class, as well as the party’s history and strength, than to ignore unions. One of the council’s excuses was the salary of a possible collective bargaining coordinator and other administrative costs. There are two problems with this argument. The first is that the council has not balked before about adding personnel. The city has its own publicist to write speeches and a housing coordinator who couldn’t prevent the BTC debacle. But, second, even the need for a coordinator is questionable.

The School Board has been working with the Harrisonburg Education Association for more than a year to develop a collective bargaining policy. So far, the cost has been the board members’ time. Then again, the School Board includes a lawyer and two economics professors, and tends to think about things in more depth. The board is working with the largest group of city employees to find common ground, while the city council members have peremptorily decided they can represent the police themselves. Owners have said that since the first miner asked for an extra penny a ton for coal.

Virginia’s cautious approach to government has only recently allowed collective bargaining for public employees, and it’s still viewed by some as a gift to the employees. For those who claim to be Democrats, it should be a duty to provide that right and a privilege to be able to.

Three Democrats’ terms on City Council are up this year. So far, there’s been no publicity about the party’s nominating process, and no announcements by independent candidates. (Republican candidates will lose. Sorry.) In an election year that could decide the future of American democracy, the city is in danger of reelecting an ineffective and rudderless city council through inattention and habit.

[Full disclosure: My wife’s on the School Board, my son’s a cop, and my brother, father, and both grandfathers were strong union members. I’d argue that makes me more qualified to state the opinions above, but your mileage may vary.]

Joe Fitzgerald is a former mayor of Harrisonburg. Republished with permission from Still Not Sleeping.