COLUMBIA — As I was walking toward campus Wednesday morning, a guy I know stopped his car and yelled, “Hey, George! Good election!” This was an activist who’d worked for Helen Anthony in her Fifth Ward campaign, so I knew what he meant.
I agreed. As usual, the voting minority in Columbia made good choices. After saying "No" multiple times in the past, we finally decided that our City Council representatives deserve a modest payment for their service. The council campaigns did, however, leave an important question unanswered: What is the proper role in politics of public employee unions?
I’m pro-union. At different times in my checkered past, I’ve been a proud member of the Newspaper Guild and the Teamsters. I think all employees, including those who work for governments and universities, should have the right to unionize and to bargain collectively. So-called “right to work” legislation and the Republican-led efforts to destroy public employee unions are anti-worker and anti-democratic.
Still, the aggressive role played by Columbia Professional Fire Fighters Local 1055 in this year’s Fifth Ward council campaign bothers me. The firefighters did their level best to influence the selection of one of their bosses. They did the same thing last year, and their candidate for mayor won. This time, their candidate lost.
If you subscribe as I do to Mike Martin’s Columbia Heart Beat blog, you’ve probably read the angry exchange between Councilperson-elect Anthony and union President Brad Fraizer. The conflict extended to a phone conversation that left Ms. Anthony feeling threatened and Mr. Fraizer feeling insulted.
On their face, the issues are almost laughable. The firefighters say they’re motivated by their concern for public safety. Show me, if you can, an anti-public safety candidate. The evidence cited by the firefighters was Glen Ehrhardt’s support of and Ms. Anthony’s opposition last year to surveillance cameras downtown. Just how vital to our safety those are is illustrated by the fact that a year later they still haven’t been installed.
Ms. Anthony asked in a campaign mailer, “What has Ehrhardt promised the firefighters?” Mr. Fraizer found that question insulting. To me, it seems both reasonable and pertinent.
After all, Mr. Ehrhardt would have been, and Ms. Anthony will be in a position to affect the pay, benefits and working conditions of all city employees, including the police (whose association also backed Mr. Ehrhardt) and firefighters. Probably the most important benefits that will certainly come under scrutiny are the generous and expensive pension programs for those public safety workers.
Martin asked whether political activism might put the firefighters at risk of alienating some of the citizenry. The bigger question, it seems to me, is whether such activism puts the democratic process at risk. Firefighters and cops are a very special special interest. They enjoy higher levels of public admiration than, say, garbage collectors or payroll clerks. They also enjoy, and probably deserve, better pay and pensions.
Should they trade on that public esteem to try to influence elections? I don’t think so.
One reason for political activism may be that Missouri law limits the bargaining power of public employee unions. Unions are allowed to “meet and confer” with administrators, but not much beyond that. It would be far better to have real bargaining at the table and less intrusion into City Council campaigns. Unless the law is changed — and the prospects for that are dim — the unions will be tempted to use their clout where they can.
Still, as a citizen who depends on police protection and fire prevention, I want my public safety employees to be professional and not political.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.