berger shevtsova garfinkle michta blankenhorn bayles
unions versus the public
Blue Civil War Meets Thin Blue Line

One highly-publicized and worthwhile endeavor of the Black Lives Matter movement has been to draw attention to the way police union contracts sometimes go too far in shielding misbehaving officers from disciplinary sanctions. But that’s not the only way strong police unions can negotiate a system of rules that put the interests of their members ahead of the interests of the public: As the Marshall Project reports, Chicago’s police unions have seen to it that the least experienced officers are asked to patrol the toughest neighborhoods in the Windy City:

[T]he deadliest jurisdiction is patrolled by the least experienced officers. Seasoned and better-connected officers tend to work the safer neighborhoods on the North, Northwest and Southwest sides. This is the result of an unusual “bidding” system negotiated by the police union in 1980, which allows officers to use their seniority to claim shifts with better hours or in low-crime neighborhoods.

Of course, it makes sense that unions would want to protect the interests of their most seasoned officers, who have climbed the ladder and paid their dues—just as it makes sense that teachers’ unions zealously guard the job security of the longest-serving teachers. But in the end, cops and teachers—and firefighters and welfare administrators—are public servants, and their work must ultimately be about securing the well-being of the people they serve. All too often, well-endowed public sector unions can tip the balance too far in the opposite direction, prioritizing the privileges of well-connected union members over the needs of the public that pays their salaries. As the Marshall Project piece suggests, the union-negotiated deal the concentrates inexperienced officers in high-crime areas makes Chicagoans—especially poor Chicagoans—worse off overall.

Powerful public employee unions are a defining feature of the blue model governance system that Democrats are determined to protect. But as we’ve written before, “the most serious grievances that many Democratic voters feel are about the inadequacy of the services these employees provide: dysfunctional schools, unaccountable law enforcement, abusive prison guards, or inefficient welfare bureaucracies.” In many cases, advancing the interests of low-income Democratic voters depends on rolling back the influence of self-interested unions over urban governance. Neither party has been able to address this problem forthrightly thus far—Republicans are inclined to protect police unions, while Democrats protect teachers’ unions and bureaucrats—but the blue civil war is not going away anytime soon.

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