Counterpoint

Eric Kriss’s description of public employee unions as monopolies that are sucking resources from cities and towns is more than an unfair attack on the hard-working men and women of the Commonwealth. It is a transparent attempt to shift the focus away from the failed policies of the Romney administration. This is, of course, a familiar propaganda technique: create a smoke screen to obscure your own botched record on job creation, public safety, education, management, fiscal prudence, and taxes.

It is no secret that this administration does not like unions and has little respect or regard for those who labor in the public sector. Secretary Kriss has delivered the same public employee-bashing message around the state for months. Gov. Romney and Secretary Kriss have targeted public employees for scorn. They once tried to eliminate health care coverage for their children and spouses. The governor wages an ongoing misinformation campaign regarding public employee pensions. Attacks on civil service and workers’ due-process rights are standard fare. And in his article here in CommonWealth, Eric Kriss fondly recalls those days when public employees were called civil servants—emphasis on servants.

In the face of this all-out assault, it’s no wonder public employees want a union!

Clearly, the Romney administration would rather attack public employee unions than confront its own shortcomings. In the brief time they have been in office, the Romney administration has spent an inordinate amount of time ducking responsibility for its failure to create jobs in the Commonwealth, for botched forensic exams at the state crime lab, for fraud throughout the state-mandated auto emission testing program, and for licenses improperly granted by the Office of Public Safety, to name just a few.

Secretary Kriss wants us to believe that public-employee collective bargaining agreements, like the Boston Teachers Union contract, have caused program cuts and layoffs of teachers. That is utter nonsense! Even Sam Tyler, of the business-backed Boston Municipal Research Bureau, described the Boston teachers settlement as fair and reasonable.

Most disingenuous of all, however, is that the Romney administration would really like us to believe that teacher union contracts are hurting the quality of our public schools. If freedom from unions meant better schools, then Mississippi and Alabama would be leaders in public education. They are not. We are.

In 2003, Massachusetts earned the distinction of being named the “smartest state” in the country by the widely respected Education State Rankings reference journal, based on the quality of its public elementary and secondary schools. This distinction was based on a comparison of 21 factors in all 50 states. Our fourth-graders scored first in the country on the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading. Massachusetts eighth-graders are second in the nation in writing.

The crisis in municipal budgets has been caused by the cuts in local aid.

In fact, even by our own statewide measurement, MCAS scores in traditional public schools exceed those of the administration’s much beloved charter schools, according to a review by The Boston Globe. However, don’t expect the Romney administration to tout these figures in their next press release, since their chairman of the state Board of Education, James Peyser, runs a venture capital firm that profits from charter schools.

The men and women who work in our public schools deserve praise for their accomplishments, not the constant teacher bashing of this administration. And it is not the contracts that their unions have negotiated for them that have created budget problems at the local level. On the contrary, Secretary Kriss, the crisis in municipal budgets has been created by your administration’s $400 million cut in state aid to cities and towns.

And this crisis is not limited to our public schools. A recent report by the Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee documented the dramatic impact local aid cuts have had on homeland security. The committee surveyed 98 percent of the state’s police chiefs and 96 percent of our fire chiefs. At a time of the most dangerous threat ever to our internal security, the survey’s findings are sobering.

Local public safety officials from across the state reported deep cuts in first-responder staffing. Since the September 11 attacks, Massachusetts cities and towns have lost 945 police officers and 798 firefighters. The committee estimates that these cuts exceed 5 percent of public safety personnel in the state. In some urban areas, it is as high as 16 percent. But in its own 2003 homeland security “report card,” the Romney administration falsely pegged the figure at a mere 1 percent.

If Gov. Romney is sincere about the “sustainability factor” confronting local governments, he should keep the promise he made in the last campaign and restore state aid to cities and towns to 2002 levels.

It’s also time for Gov. Romney to live up to his reputation as a savvy businessman. Successful CEOs praise their employees, not bash them.

Public employee unions provided the heroes of September 11, 2001.

In closing, let me say that I believe Eric Kriss’s quotation from Adam Smith was a highly inappropriate way to open an article on unions, in that Smith’s writings not only predate the Bill of Rights, but also the industrial revolution and the union movement. A more appropriate and timely context to put public employees in would be the events of September 11, 2001. The heroes of that fateful day, all members of public employee unions, were the hundreds of firefighters who rushed into the World Trade Center towers, the police officers, emergency medical technicians, social workers, and, yes, even the teachers who ushered thousands of children to safety. They have all rightly earned our respect and praise.

Meet the Author
Members of public employee unions patrol lonely highways at night to keep us safe; they empty the bedpans and change the sheets for those whom society might otherwise leave behind; they guard us from murderers, rapists, and drug dealers in our prisons; they run into burning buildings to save us; they teach our children, manage our parks, greet our tourists.

In exchange, they demand dignity, a fair wage and livable benefits for their entire family, and the right—protected by a union contract—to perform their duties honestly, without fear of political retribution. I am extremely proud to be a member of a public employee union and to have the opportunity to represent my colleagues as a union officer.

Kathleen Kelley is president of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers and executive vice president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.