Friday, December 02, 2005

The most powerful victims in California

An important arrow in the quiver of public and non-profit sector unions (teachers, nurses, etc) is the public perception of the professionals they purport to represent as victims and martyrs. Since the public often conflates the professionals-at-large with the unions themselves, the unions benefit hugely from the sympathy the public has for their beleaguered "constituents". The most dramatic example of this is the recent special election in California. Governor Schwarzenegger suffered a huge drop in public approval after he criticized public and non-profit sector unions. Many saw his criticisms of the unions as "attacking the teachers" and "taking on the nurses". What nerve this Hollywood millionaire had, directly attacking the underpaid teachers who teach our kids and the overworked nurses who treat our sick! Every Northern Californian who drove through Oakland on the southbound 880 freeway in the past year saw an enormous billboard with a picture of Arnold captioned, "He wheels and deals," and a picture of a weary nurse captioned, "She heals." A complicated and critical debate over how political influence is distributed became a simple narrative of a cocky top dog versus a saintly underdog. And the unions took full advantage of that role, raising and spending record levels of funds to crush the Governor like a girly-man in the polls and at the ballot-box.

The unions have certainly outdone themselves. But they may have also overdone it at the same time. The public and non-profit sector unions have always wielded tremendous political power in California. But until now, they've wielded it with some subtlety. Now after the special election, however, they are recognized far and wide as the big dogs in California politics. And it may prove difficult to blend that image with the image of the martyr and victim. When I talk to union-boosters about their crushing victory, they always seem to be little embarrassed by it.

This embarrassment will only be compounded if the unions are able to replace Schwarzenegger in two years with an "establishment Democrat." With the unions and their cronies fully and VISIBLY in the driver's seat in California, it will become much harder for them to find somebody else to blame for the woeful state of our schools, our health care system, and our state bureaucracy.


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